Britain is poised for what promises to be a lively and possibly angry national debate, after the government on Wednesday backed a proposal to allow limited cloning of human embryos.
The move, which would permit scientists to run "therapeutic cloning" experiments aimed at finding new cures for disease, is bound to put pressure on Washington to let federal funds be used for embryo research.
Members of Parliament will vote this fall on whether to change laws on embryo research, currently restricted to the treatment of infertility. The ruling Labour Party's large majority in the House of Commons appears to guarantee passage. In a rare move, however, the government said Parliament members will be allowed to vote "according to conscience," rather than toe the party line. Liam Fox, spokesman on health issues for the opposition Conservative Party, said he would vote against the plan, noting there was "genuine and deep-rooted political unease about many of the medical techniques we can now employ."
The latest proposals would maintain a ban on cloning entire human beings, but already there are signs that the issue will become a political football as anticloning groups line up against recommendations by Liam Donaldson, the government's chief medical officer. Professor Donaldson on Wednesday announced that, after a year's study, an expert panel had decided in favor of experiments using human stem cells to develop what some scientists are calling "body repair kits." The British government immediately endorsed its view.
As many as 200 stem cells are present in the human embryo when it is only days old. Scientists believe these cells have potential to develop into almost any kind of body tissue, and that they could be used to treat degenerative diseases as well as to generate replacement organs.
"Stem-cell research opens up a new medical frontier," Donaldson said. "It offers enormous potential for new treatments for chronic disease, injuries, and the relief of human suffering."
But the government's plan is being greeted with dismay by anti- abortion and religious groups that maintain such research is unethical and unnecessary.
Enthusiasm for stem-cell research is being fueled by recent successes in the field, as well as growing unease over the use of animal organs as replacements for human organs diagnosed as diseased. On Tuesday, scientists in Philadelphia and New Jersey were reported to have produced human nerve cells using stem cells from bone marrow from adults. Also this week, researchers at Scotland's Roslin Institute, where Dolly the sheep was cloned, abandoned work on using genetically modified pigs to create organs that might be used to make up for the worldwide shortage of human donors. …