THE scientists who cloned Dolly the sheep will seek permission to carry out experiments on human embryos, signifying a major shift in the focus of their ground-breaking research.
The Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh, wants to take advantage of Britain’s "relatively liberal" rules towards work on human embryos and will apply to the government’s fertility authority for a licence within weeks, The Scotsman has learned.
Their aim is to investigate ways of harvesting human stem cells, which are found in the growing embryo and have the potential to develop into any tissue in the body. Experts believe stem cells could help treat life-threatening diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
But religious organisations have warned that experiments on human embryos are "ethically controversial".
The Roslin team, which has remained a world leader in cloning technology since Dolly’s birth in 1996, is also considering how it could apply its technique, cell nuclear replacement, to human embryos.
Dr Harry Griffin, the assistant director of the Roslin, said yesterday: "Our initial intention is to establish methods for deriving human embryonic stem cell lines using surplus embryos or embryos created specifically for the purpose by IVF.
"This project will form the basis of a formal application for a licence to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority from Roslin within the next couple of months."
However, Dr Griffin urged caution over the potential of cloning in providing treatments for deadly diseases.
He said: "We do not see cloning as a way of routinely creating treatments for patients because there is a poor supply of eggs in Britain. And are individual treatments for specific diseases ever going to be economically or practically viable for thousands of patients?
"At present, the most realistic application for cloning is in basic research - the creation of human embryonic stem cells, for example, from patients suffering from particular genetic diseases to allow those diseases to be better studied in the laboratory. In the case of potential applications of cell nuclear replacement or cloning, we are still formulating our case."
But Dr Griffin’s words prompted fears among ethicists, who warned that while some people agree experiments upon discarded embryos are acceptable, many feel that human embryos should not be created for the sole purpose of laboratory experiments.
Dr Donald Bruce, the director of the Society, Religion and Technology project of the Church of Scotland, said: "My personal view is that I would rather embryos did not have to be used at all. However, I think many people would feel using IVF embryos that were destined to be destroyed is better than just throwing them away.
"But a lot of people would have significant reservations about creating embryos for the purpose of experiments."
A landmark ruling by the House of Lords has made human embryonic stem cell research and the cloning of human embryos possible in the UK under strict regulation. A number of scientists, including Professor Austin Smith of Edinburgh University, have been granted licences by the HFEA to work on embryos, but no-one has yet attempted human cloning in Britain.
Roslin’s success in producing Dolly earmarks it as a strong candidate if it was to enter the race to produce a cloned human embryo. It was set up as a government-funded, agricultural breeding institute, but a reduction in funding for farm research coupled with the strides being made in embryo research in the UK have prompted the institute’s scientists to shift their focus to human genetics.
Scientists have had limited success in the field of human cloning. The closest recorded attempt was announced last November by researchers at a private US biotech firm, who published a paper suggesting its scientists had cloned human embryos. The ultimate aim is to create stem cell lines to help treat disease and even create human organs.
Human reproductive cloning, championed by doctors such as Professor Severino Antinori, is against the law in many countries and Dr Griffin and his team have denounced such projects. Prof Antinori last week claimed a woman is eight weeks pregnant with a cloned baby but produced no proof.