Britain became the first country to effectively legalize the creation of cloned human embryos when the House of Lords approved a proposed change to government regulations on Monday.
The measure is aimed at allowing research on so-called stem
cells--the unprogrammed master cells found in early stage embryos
that can turn into nearly every cell type in the body. Like all
other embryos used in research, the clones created under the new
regulations would have to be destroyed after 14 days, and the
creation of humans by cloning would remain outlawed.
The change passed late Monday after an amendment that would have
delayed it was defeated. The new regulations take effect Jan. 31.
Before the measure won approval, an impassioned debate on the
topic ran on into the night.
Many lords said they were concerned that ethical worries were
being sidelined in the rush to be at the forefront of medical
research. They proposed an amendment that would have withheld
approval of the government's proposal until after the ethical,
moral and scientific issues surrounding the research had been
studied by a specially created committee.
The amendment was defeated by 212 votes to 92, with the lords
saying the ethical issues should be debated by a special committee
later. That cleared the way for the cloning measure's approval.
Fertility expert Lord Winston, who chairs the House of Lords'
science and technology committee, spoke out strongly in favor of
"There is no doubt that on your vote, my Lords, depends whether
some people in the near future get the treatment which might save
them from disease or, even worse, death," he told the lords.
The change relaxes the rules that limit medical research on
human embryos under the 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology
Act, which permitted research on donated embryos only for strictly
limited purposes, including studies on infertility and the
detection of birth defects.
Regulators will now be allowed to expand the types of research
permitted under the Act so that scientists can use embryos to
investigate the potential of stem cells, which experts say could
revolutionize medicine, offering the possibility of transplants
that would prevent or cure scores of illnesses from Parkinson's
disease to diabetes.
The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, which polices
embryo research, has promised to consider cloning applications for
some types of research, such as stem cell experiments. Those would
inevitably involve cloning of embryos, because the goal is to treat
patients with perfectly matching tissue transplants.
Peers heard during the debate that it could take up to a year
before the first research permits were granted and that a
breakthrough in the field could take a further 10 years.
An embryo is essentially a ball of stem cells that evolves into
a fetus when the stem cells start specializing to create a nervous
system, spine and other features _ at about 14 days. Scientists
hope that by extracting the stem cells from the embryo when it is
three or four days old, their growth can be directed in a lab to
become any desired cell or tissue type for transplant.
The hope is that one day it will be possible to grow neurons to
replace nerve cells in a brain killed by Parkinson's disease, skin
to repair burns and pancreatic cells to produce insulin for
Scientists would create a clone of a sick patient by removing
the nucleus of a donor egg and replacing it with that of a cell
from the patient. The egg would be induced to divide and start
growing into an embryo. The cloned cells would be genetically
identical to the patient's and therefore theoretically overcome
problems of transplant rejection, which happens because the immune
system fights foreign tissue.
"The human embryo has a special status and we owe a measure of
respect to the embryo," said health minister Lord Hunt of Kings
Heath, who supports the change.
"We also owe a measure of respect to the millions of people
living with these devastating illnesses and the millions who have
yet to show signs of them. This is the balance we must make."