Professor Ian Wilmut, the scientist who lead the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, has applied for a licence to clone human embryos. He and his team, based at the Roslin Institute outside of Edinburgh, hope to use the cloned embryos in the study of, and to work towards a cure for, motor neurone disease. He intends to clone cells from sufferers of the debilitating disease in order to determine how it develops.
Professor Wilmut has already publicly stated that he was intending to apply for the licence, in an interview published in New Scientist magazine in February. This was later confirmed at a press conference in April. At the time, Harry Griffin, a spokesman for the Roslin Institute, confirmed that the researchers there would apply for the therapeutic cloning licence, subject to approval by the institute's internal ethics committee.
Now, Professor Wilmut's request has been put before the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the government body that licences all work carried out on human embryos in the UK. If the HFEA grants the licence, it will only be the second to be issued in the UK, despite the fact that cloning human embryos for research purposes - often known as therapeutic cloning - has technically been legal in the UK since 2001. The HFEA issued the first licence to a team in Newcastle in August, who are trying to find cures for a number of diseases including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. If the HFEA approves Professor Wilmut's application, the Roslin team hopes to begin research by Easter next year.
At a press conference given to announce the application, Professor Wilmut stressed that the licence would not mean that human babies would be cloned. But, he said, cloning embryos will be an 'extremely powerful' tool in the understanding of disease. 'We want to produce stem cells from these cloned embryos that will allow us to study the early development of the disease', he said, adding 'It is really not something we understand at all at the moment'.
Sources and References
Dolly's creator applies for human cloning licence
'Dolly' scientist seeks human clone licence