Professor Ian Wilmut, leader of the team that created Dolly the sheep, is applying for the UK's first licence to clone human embryos for stem cell research, saying it would be 'immoral' not to carry out such research. Cloning human embryos for medical research purposes - a procedure known as therapeutic cloning - has been legal in the UK since 2001, although cloning for reproduction is prohibited. Professor Wilmut's application will, however, be the first to be submitted to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the agency which regulates all forms of embryo research in the UK.
Professor Wilmut, based at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, has already publicly stated that he was intending to apply for the licence, in an interview published in New Scientist magazine in February 2004. His comments followed the announcement by a team of South Korean scientists, that they had managed to derive stem cells from a cloned human embryo. Wilmut's team want to use the cloned embryos to study what goes wrong in the nerve cells of patients affected by motor neurone disease. In an interview this week, Professor Wilmut told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the procedure is likely to bring 'a great number of benefits', and 'totally new opportunities to begin to understand disease'.
Harry Griffin, a spokesman for the Roslin Institute confirmed that researchers there will apply for a therapeutic cloning licence, subject to approval by the institute's internal ethics committee, but have not yet done so. Last year, the HFEA granted Roslin a licence for human embryo stem cell research using surplus embryos created during IVF treatment and donated for research purposes. The licence also allows the Roslin scientists to create embryos for stem cells by artificially stimulating donated human eggs to develop, in a process known as parthenogenesis.
Wilmut accepts that the research will face opposition. 'To some people, to do anything with a human embryo is a deeply offensive idea', he told the BBC. But he added: 'I think it is critical that we understand exactly the stage of development that we will be producing. Human embryos at this stage are so small that you can't see them without the aid of a microscope. They have perhaps 200 cells. There is almost no differentiation into the different cell types'. He went on to say that at any stage of life, a human being deserved respect, adding 'for me and for people who would be involved in this research, because at this early stage the embryo does not have that key human characteristic of being aware, to me it would be immoral not to take this opportunity to study diseases'.
Sources and References
Dolly scientist makes cloned embryos bid
Dolly creator: 'I will clone human embryo'
Scientists seek to clone human cells