Scientists from Newcastle University in the UK are hoping to gain approval for a licence to clone human embryos for stem cell research into diabetes, according to the UK's Observer newspaper. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is considering the application from the International Centre for Life, having already inspected the laboratories where the work would take place, and is thought to have discussed the proposal at a research committee meeting held last Wednesday.
Dr Miodrag Stojkovic, leader of the Newcastle research team, said that the plan was to produce dozens of human embryos employing the same technique used to create Dolly the sheep in 1997. This involves stripping an egg of its genetic material (DNA) and replacing it with DNA taken from a cell of the person to be cloned. The team then hopes to derive stem cells from the embryos. These stem cells can be coaxed to develop into insulin-producing cells, which could later be transplanted into people with diabetes.
Professor Alison Murdoch, from the Newcastle Centre for Life, said that cloning the embryos was a necessary part of the procedure: 'by using the DNA from the patient as part of the cloning process, this will insure that the new tissue will not be rejected by them', she told the Observer. She added that the researchers will only use eggs donated from consenting IVF patients. 'This is a great opportunity', said Stojkovic, adding: 'We are focusing on diabetes but we believe our work could lead to cures for other diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's'.
The Observer report said that the HFEA had already given its support in principle to the application and was working with Newcastle University on the content of a public announcement to be made next month. The HFEA's formal decision is expected to be given sometime next week. But although embryonic stem cell research of this kind may ultimately prove to be highly beneficial to diabetes sufferers, some people continue to object to the science. Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe called the research project 'the start of a slippery slope', saying that 'it is unnecessary to use embryo stem cells when many scientists believe stem cells taken from adults could be used'. And a group of scientists and campaigners has written to Suzi Leather, chair of the HFEA, asking her not to approve the application. They say the planned research is 'irresponsible, unethical, scientifically weak, unnecessary and politically motivated'. Dr David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, a pressure group, was one of those who signed. The research is 'very unlikely to produce anything medically useful', he said, adding 'but it will be a great help for those who want to clone babies'.