FIRST CLONED HUMAN EMBRYO; the Picture That Marks Another Leap Forward in Science - but Is Sure to Fuel the Moral Debate

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IT could be a shot of a lunar landscape or a piece of 1960s pop art.

But this is a picture of the first human embryo to be cloned by scientists.

The mass at the centre is a 12-day-old male embryo consisting of almost 400 cells. Invisible to the naked eye, it had to be photographed through a microscope which magnified it 200 times. Two days later it was incinerated by the American scientists who created it. The breakthrough will fuel disquiet over the apparently unstoppable rush of biotechnology. It also raises starkly the key question of just what constitutes a human being.

The highly-respected firm which created the embryo, Advanced Cell Technology, insist they have no intention of trying to produce a cloned baby.

But there are fears that the technology could be used to do exactly that.

Dr Robert Lanza, ACT's director of tissue engineering, says the embryo cannot be seen as a person because it is less than 14 days old, the age at which a human embryo implants itself into the wall of the womb and starts to develop a nervous system.

The ACT programme is aimed at producing human body tissue to treat patients with a range of conditions, including nerve damage, diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

Although Dr Lanza's team have yet to publish full details of how they created the embryo, experts in the field say there is no reason to doubt their claim.

The methods involved were similar to those which produced Dolly the sheep at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. The American scientists first isolated the DNA-loaded nucleus of a human cell, part of a skin sample from a man's leg. Then they took the egg of a cow, inserted a tiny needle, and extracted the nucleus and all DNA material, leaving only the outer protein.

The human nucleus was inserted into the cow's egg which was placed in a laboratory dish and soaked in a chemical solution which 'tricked' it into thinking it was a newly-conceived embryo.

In a process identical to the days following natural conception, the cell repeatedly doubled itself and could, theoretically, have developed into a recognisable human foetus.

But in the first 14 days, all the cells are a type known as stem cells, each of which has the potential to develop into nerves, blood, skin or bone, but has not begun to do so.

These are the cells the scientists want to cultivate. The aim is to manipulate them so that they grow into skin, nerves, or even organs.

These can be transplanted into the donor of the original cell with a high chance of success, because the DNA makeup will be his own and his body should accept the new tissue.

ACT perfected the process of creating human embryos last November, when the picture was taken, and is thought to have made many since then, incinerating them all, in line with U.S. research rules, before they reached the age of two weeks.

The company issued the picture, it says, with the aim of dispelling concern about the artificial conception of human life.

ACT president Michael West, a former truck dealer who turned to medical research and joined the Massachusetts company after setting up two similar firms of his own, said: 'People don't realise that we're talking about cells that have not become anything yet. …