Opponents of research cloning have served an application for a judicial review on the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), over its decision to issue the first licence granting permission to create cloned human embryos. The HFEA issued the licence in August 2004, to Newcastle University researchers working on new treatments for diabetes and other diseases. At the time, UK pro-life groups condemned the move, and were reported to be considering a legal challenge to the licence.
Solicitors acting for Peng Voong, of the Lawyer's Christian Fellowship, launched the challenge on 17 November. If the High Court allows the review to go ahead, it would take place next year. Julie Millington, of the Pro-Life Alliance, said the organisation was supporting Voong's challenge. She says that the HFEA did not provide details of the licence prior to its issue, and that the challenge 'will address concerns regarding the lack of transparency in the HFEA's decision-making processes, as well as the legality of the licence itself'.
The Newcastle team wants to use SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer), the technique used to create Dolly the sheep, to develop cell-based disease therapies - an approach sometimes called therapeutic cloning. It involves removing the genetic information of an unfertilised egg cell, and replacing it with that of a body cell. The egg cell is then stimulated to start dividing, so that it will produce embryo stem cells (ES cells) - the body's master cells, capable of growing into nearly any type of body cell. By using genetic material from the body cell of a patient, these cells could then be used to replace diseased tissues, without being rejected by the patient's immune system.
Human ES cell research, including therapeutic cloning, was regulated by an amendment made to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in December 2000, when the government voted to allow ES cell research for a wide range of purposes. However, the amendment was initially successfully challenged by a pro-life group in a High Court judicial review, leaving ES cell research unregulated, but only until the High Court decision was overturned in January 2002. In March 2002, a House of Lords select committee gave UK scientists the long-awaited green light to begin new research on human ES cells.
The Pro-Life alliance is now claiming that the licence issued to the Newcastle team does not fulfil the conditions of the HFE Act, since it does not include research into any specified disease. The HFEA has not issued a statement about the challenge, saying it does not comment on legal proceedings. A spokesperson for the Newcastle Human Embryonic Stem Cell Group said: 'We feel that the majority of people in the UK support our work but we accept that everyone has the right to express their views on this issue'.