The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has given a Newcastle team permission to create human embryos that are clones of patients. The team, which applied for the licence in June, is licensed use the embryos to make embryonic stem cells for research purposes. They plan to investigate diabetes, though their work could be relevant to diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
The team will use a process known as CNR (cell nuclear replacement), which involves replacing the DNA of a human embryo with the DNA from a human skin cell. CNR was used to make Dolly the sheep, but the crucial difference is that embryos created by the Newcastle team will not be implanted in a womb. Such reproductive cloning is illegal in the UK, and punishable with up to ten years in jail and unlimited fineInstead, the team will work on embryonic stem cells derived from the embryos. It is thought these cells have great potential in treating disease by replacing damaged tissue. Unlike an organ transplant, stem cells are not expected to be rejected as the CNR process ensures they have the same DNA as the patient.
This is the first licence for CNR in humans that the HFEA has issued. The chair of the HFEA, Suzi Leather, said, 'After careful consideration of all the scientific, ethical, legal and medical aspects of the project, the HFEA Licence Committee agreed to grant an initial one year research licence to the Newcastle Centre for Life. This is an important area of research and a responsible use of technology. The HFEA is there to make sure any research involving human embryos is scrutinised and properly regulated'.
Since South Korean scientists announced the first use of this technology on human cells in February, there has been growing support for its use in the UK. Professor Alison Murdoch, who will lead the research, said, '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'.
However, the announcement has triggered outrage amongst pro-life groups such as Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core), who say that human embryos should not be used as a commodity. Core, along with other allied pressure groups, is reported to be considering a legal challenge to the HFEA's decision to allow the Newcastle research to go ahead. Meanwhile, in Germany, the president of the German Medical Association, Jorg-Dietrich Hoppe, has called for a Europe-wide ban on all forms of cloning.