Thursday, June 17, 1999 Published at 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
Human cloning experiments underway
Firms say cloning will benefit people
Experiments have begun in the US to create the first cloned human embryos. The intention behind the work, say researchers, is not to make identical people but to source embryonic stem cells.
These cells have the potential to become any tissue in the body and scientists believe they will eventually lead to powerful new treatments for a host of medical conditions, including diabetes and Parkinson's Disease.
And producing the cells via cloning allows the possibility of creating perfect match tissues in transplants.
Geron Corporation, at Menlo Park in California, has admitted it is trying to create the first batches of cloned human embryos. At the same time, Advanced Cell Technology, based in Massachusetts, is reportedly using a technology that attempt to fuse cells from people with cows' eggs.
But for those who believe life begins at the time of conception, the new research is hard to accept. Some fear a programme of harvesting human embryonic cells could eventually lead to the wholesale creation of a cloned human.
Scientists see embryos as a source for stem cells
Mark Nicholls, operations manager of the British-based Movement Against The Cloning of Humans (Match) says its not even necessary: "Advocates of spare part human cloning say that the work could lead to new treatments for many illnesses.
"However, what they do not say is that the body of a living adult also contains stem cells that could be used for therapeutic purposes, making redundant the need to destroy human embryos," he says.
Benefits outweigh concern
Michael West, president of ACT, is quoted by the Washington Post as having little patience with such arguments: "I think people don't realise that we're talking about cells that have not become anything yet. To prevent science from using cells to cure human diseases would be a horrific step backwards."
In May, Geron bought all the shares in Roslin Bio-Med, the commercial arm of the Scottish laboratory which produced Dolly the cloned sheep, and have promised to invest £12.5 million over the next six years.
Dolly was produced from reprogrammed genetic material
The two companies hope to combine Geron's expertise in stem cells and Roslin's experience with animal cloning.
They hope to discover how adult cells can be reprogrammed to become different types of cell, again so that they can be used in transplants.
"Therapeutic cloning" of humans is illegal in Britain, though not in the United States. There is no indication that any of the cloning experiments are being conducted at the Scottish laboratory.