Human cloning research has been given a green light in the United Kingdom. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates research involving human embryos in Britain, today granted scientists at the University of Newcastle permission to attempt to create human embryos by nuclear transfer--the same technique used to produce cloned animals.
The Newcastle scientists have no intention to create full-term babies. Instead, they hope to create stem cell lines that might provide insights into genetic diseases or, someday, provide genetically matched stem cells that could treat patients suffering from diabetes or even spinal cord injuries.
First the team will attempt to create a cloned embryo by inserting the nucleus of, say, a skin cell into an unfertilized human egg, left over from in vitro fertilization treatments. If they succeed in creating embryos that develop for a few days, they will remove the outer layer of cells (usually destined to become the placenta) and attempt to grow the so-called inner cell mass in culture dishes. Such cells, called embryonic stem (ES) cells, can grow in culture indefinitely and can in theory become any cell type in the body. Scientists hope to someday be able to use such cells to grow replacement tissues to treat disease.
University of Newcastle embryologist Miodrag Stojkovic, who will lead the research team, says they will start out using nuclei from healthy donors. In the long term, though, he and his colleagues hope to create ES cell lines using nuclei from patients who suffer from genetic diseases such as type I diabetes. Such cell lines could provide valuable insights into the mechanisms behind the disease, he says.
HFEA is the first to grant a license for such work in Europe. The license is limited, and the team must reapply to have it extended beyond 1 year. Scientists in Korea announced in February that they had created a stem cell line from a cloned embryo (ScienceNOW, 12 February). In the United States, federal government funding cannot be used for embryo research, but researchers with private funds are free to attempt human nuclear transfer. Several U.S. teams have tried to create stem cell lines from cloned embryos, but none has announced successful results.