In March of this year, scientists in the UK were finally given the go-ahead to begin research aimed at developing new disease treatments using cells extracted from early human embryos - therapeutic cloning. It took nearly three years of parliamentary and public debate to put the necessary regulatory framework in place, which included an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990. As we report in this week's BioNews, the introduction of new cloning legislation in the US looks set to be a similarly long and drawn-out process.
Since the technology was first developed, US research into the cloning of human embryos has continued unregulated in the private sector, whilst government-funded scientists are banned from such work. Senators were shortly expected to vote on two rival bills that aimed to introduce new legislation to address this situation. The first of these, passed by Congress last year, called for a total ban on all forms of cloning, whether for reproductive or medical research purposes. The other sought to ban reproductive cloning whilst allowing research into therapeutic cloning to continue.
Despite repeated calls from President Bush for the Senate to support a complete cloning ban, intense lobbying by patient groups, scientists and biotech companies appears to have paid off. Following a series of amendments and procedural disputes last week, the bill that would have outlawed any cloning research was eventually withdrawn. It is not now clear when, or how the Senate will be considering the cloning issue.
So for now, it appears that human embryo stem cell research is a line of inquiry that could remain open to US scientists. However, the introduction of new cloning legislation may still be some way off. Some supporters of therapeutic cloning research now fear that this uncertainty may stop US scientists from embarking on research that may one day be criminalised. Millions of families affected by life-threatening illnesses, who might benefit from therapeutic cloning research, are aware that medical research into new treatments takes many years. Many US patients must now be hoping their politicians will not make them wait any longer than is absolutely necessary.