Scientists Clone Britain's First Human Embryo; Does It Herald Medical Advances, or the Creation of Identikit Babies?

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Byline: JULIE WHELDON

A HUMAN embryo has been cloned for the first time in Britain, it emerged last night.

Scientists in Newcastle upon Tyne have created an early stage embryo using the same technique that was used to produce Dolly the sheep.

The breakthrough was announced on the day researchers from South Korea revealed for the first time that cloned stem cells have been created which are an identical match to patients with devastating conditions.

While the scientific community hailed the news, campaigners warned that any advances in cloning techniques could assist mavericks who might want to create cloned babies.

Stem cells are the body's master cells that can turn into any tissue.

Scientists believe they can one day be used to beat previously incurable conditions such as Parkinson's and diabetes.

The Newcastle team were the first in the country to obtain a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to carry out therapeutic cloning for stem cell research.

The technique involves taking an egg, replacing its DNA with that from another cell and stimulating it to create an embryo.

From this, stem cells can be harvested before the embryo is destroyed.

Yesterday the British team announced they had managed to create three blastocysts - early-stage embryos.

They took eggs from 11 women, replaced the genetic material with DNA from other cells and then stimulated them to make embryos. The eggs were given a brief electrical shock to kick-start the growth process.

Three embryos survived for three days and one - a female the size of a full stop on this page - lived for five days.

The work was carried out by Professor Alison Murdoch, who also chairs the British Fertility Society, and Dr Miodrag Stojkovic, deputy director of Newcastle's-Centre for Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics.

Speaking last night on BBC2's Newsnight, Professor Murdoch said: 'What in the past has been a theoretical possibility that this would provide new treatment is now a realistic possibility that we will be having treatment from this breakthrough. …