THE scientist who cloned Dolly the Sheep was today given the go-ahead to experiment on human embryos by the Government’s fertility authority.
Professor Ian Wilmut, of the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, received a licence to carry out the controversial research in a bid to find a cure for motor neurone disease.
Professor Stephen Hawking and former Celtic star Jimmy Johnstone are among the sufferers of the wasting illness, which affects about 5000 people in Britain. Actor David Niven also died from the disease.
Experts believe the research could begin to benefit patients within a decade.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) today approved the application, marking only the second time the agency has given consent to clone human embryos.
But campaigners today branded the research "profoundly unethical" and raised concerns about why the new licence had been awarded while a legal challenge into the first case continues. They also claimed that cloning human beings now appeared "inevitable".
Prof Wilmut was at the centre of worldwide publicity when Dolly, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, was born on July 5, 1996.
Today, Prof Wilmut said: "It will be possible for the first time to be able to study cells from the very early stages of development that would have developed motor neurone disease had they been in a patient.
"This will create totally new opportunities to begin to understand the disease and to begin to test new drugs and to research the disease in totally new ways that can’t be done in any other way."
There is no cure for the disease and most patients die within five years of diagnosis.
Along with fellow applicant Professor Christopher Shaw, of the Department of Neurology, Institute of Psychiatry, at Kings College, London, Prof Wilmut now plans to take the DNA from the skin or blood of a person with motor neurone disease and implant it into a human egg from which the genetic material has been removed.
The egg will then be stimulated to develop into an embryo - which will develop for six days.
Scientists will then remove cells from it and destroy the embryo.
The nerve cells will then be studied in a way which is said to be impossible in a living patient, because the key cells are in the central nervous system of sufferers and cannot be removed and analysed.
Prof Wilmut has previously claimed that cloning embryos would be an "extremely powerful" tool in understanding motor neurone disease. It is believed that his research could now begin as soon as Easter.
The creation of cloned babies is banned in the UK, but therapeutic cloning has been legal since 2002.
In August last year, the HFEA gave scientists from the University of Newcastle the green light to clone human embryos.
The research - which aims to treat a host of incurable diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes - has provoked fury from pro-life groups. And in November, the pro-life movement mounted a legal challenge to that decision to grant the first licence to clone human embryos.
A member of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship - which represents about 1500 people in the legal profession - applied for a judicial review amid claims that the HFEA did not provide reasonable information about procedures when it granted that licence.
LCF public policy officer Andrea Minichiello Williams today said: "They’ve granted a second licence despite the fact that a court has not yet determined the legality of the first licence. The judicial review is still ongoing. The truth is there hasn’t been any successful experimentation on animals [for motor neurone disease] and now thousands of embryos will be destroyed in regards to this."
Julia Millington, political director of the ProLife Alliance, claimed that other research using adult stem cells extracted from bone marrow could prove to be as effective as using embryos.
She added: "We’re opposed to all human cloning and it’s outrageous that they’ve granted a second licence when the first one is still being contested in the courts.
"Any attempt to use human embryos for research purposes that results in the destruction of the embryo is totally unethical and ought to be resisted. It seems inevitable that this will lead to reproductive cloning."
The majority of sufferers from motor neurone disease survive less than two to five years from the onset of symptoms.
It affects the motor neurones - the nerve cells along which the brain sends instructions in the form of electrical impulses to the muscles - in the brain and spinal cord.
Their degeneration leads to weakness and wasting of muscles, usually in the limbs, but can also affect muscles in the face and throat, while the intellect and the senses remain unaffected.
Prof Wilmut plans to apply the technique used to clone Dolly - cell nuclear replacement - to human embryos.
The pioneering scientist has proposed to harvest human embryonic stem cells from surplus embryos or embryos created specifically for the purpose by IVF.
Dolly died in February 2003 after developing a progressive lung disease usually found in older sheep, but Dolly was also diagnosed with a form of arthritis and her premature death raised questions about the life-span of cloned animals.
Last year, scientists in South Korea said they had produced the first definitive human cloned embryos.