Byline: REBECCA SMITH
BRITISH scientists got permission today to clone human embryos for the first time.
The embryos will be used to harvest stem cells for research into cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes.
A research team in Newcastle will become only the second in the world to clone human embryos.
The development was immediately criticised by pro-life groups who say it is a cynical abuse of human life and could lead to maverick doctors attempting to create the first cloned baby.
Supporters hailed the move as "immensely exciting".
Reproductive cloning remains illegal in this country.
Permission for "therapeutic cloning" was granted by the licensing body, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
Suzi Leather, chairman of the HFEA, said the decision came "after careful consideration of all the scientific, ethical, legal and medical aspects of the project".
The HFEA has given a one-year research licence to scientists at the University of Newcastle. The work will take place at the International Centre for Life in the city.
Researchers will use eggs left over from in-vitro fertilisation treatment and donated by couples which would otherwise have been destroyed.
The team, led by Dr Miodrag Stojkovic and Professor Alison Murdoch, hope to grow stem cells, which are the blueprint for all other cells in the body, into insulin-producing cells that can be transplanted into diabetic patients.
It could potentially offer a cure for the disease and end the need for daily injections.
Professor Murdoch said: "We are absolutely thrilled. The potential this area of research offers is immensely exciting and we are keen to take the work we've done so far to the next level.
"Since we submitted our application we have had overwhelming support from senior scientists and clinicians from all over the world and many letters from patients who may benefit from the research."
She said the research would offer valuable insights into diseases and they could start treating people in clinical trials in five years or less if they get more funding.
During research at Newcastle the embryos will be destroyed before they are 14 days old and will never be allowed to develop beyond a cluster of cells the size of a pinhead.
This year researchers in South Korea announced that they had produced the first cloned human embryos.
A Newcastle University spokeswoman said: "As far as we know it has not been done by anyone apart from the Koreans."
Therapeutic cloning is backed by medical charities and the Government but strongly opposed by pro-life groups.
Professor Jack Scarisbrick, chairman of the charity Life, said: "We are not surprised but it is a lamentable decision.
"It is a cynical exploitation of human life. Human life begins at the moment of conception, it does not get more valuable as it gets older.
"This is a frightening scenario. It is creating a new kind of sexless human being to supply stem cells and with the intention of killing it."
He said the research was totally unnecessary and adult stem cells could be used instead.
Josephine Quintavalle, of the pro-life group Core (Comment On Reproductive Ethics), told Radio4's The World At One: "It is very worrying indeed. …