PHILADELPHIA – In a move that could accelerate stem-cell research, the British government yesterday granted Newcastle University that country’s first license to use cloning to create human stem cells.

Researchers and ethicists in the United States say they see no reason to fear the move would encourage the use of the technology to make cloned babies – something that most of the international biomedical community has agreed not to pursue.

The United States remains without a coherent policy on cloning. Although Congress has been debating the issue since the 1997 cloning of the Scottish sheep Dolly, no federal legislation has been passed that would restrict or ban the technology. So U.S. companies remain free to experiment with cloning without the need of a license, but few are inclined to do so, knowing that a bill might pass banning the research.

“We’re in the worst possible situation,” said University of Pennsylvania ethicist Arthur Caplan. Privately funded entities can do as they want, he said. “The public sector is unable to regulate or control anything.”

“Those of us who are serious about medical applications would welcome the control,” said Robert Lanza, whose Massachusetts company, Advanced Cell Technology, is one of the few to have attempted cloning of human cells.

Cloning involves taking an egg cell from a female animal, removing its DNA, and adding DNA from another cell, then coaxing it to divide a few times in a dish. In sheep, mice, cats and a few other animals, scientists have succeeded in implanting the cloned cells into the womb of a female and producing offspring that are genetic copies of another animal.

No one has succeeded in cloning any kind of primate, and it is not clear it is possible to clone humans to make babies, though several groups, including a UFO cult known as the Raelians, have made unsubstantiated claims.

Most medical researchers interested in cloning want to use the technology to create embryonic stem cells. Such cells might eventually be used as a kind of replacement tissue to treat Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, severe burns, heart disease or other conditions.

The more established way to create stem cells is to use embryos destined to be discarded by fertility clinics.

Stem cells made by cloning offer one potential advantage: Cloning a patient’s cells would remove much of the risk of rejection of any replacement tissue or cells generated.

Only two groups have made progress in the quest to use cloning to make stem cells. First, in 2001, researchers at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., claimed to have created a cloned human embryo, though they failed to make any stem cells from it. In January, a group in South Korea announced it had succeeded in cloning a human embryo.

Ethicist Caplan said he saw no reason to ban this research. “I don’t believe these embryos are babies,” he said.

Some people have “slippery slope” qualms: Once any cloning is allowed, it opens the door to people who want to use the technology to make babies.

Others have raised the specter that researchers would implant a cloned embryo into a woman, abort it, then use it for research or harvest its tissues.

Some states have laws against cloning, and President Bush imposed restrictions in 2001 on the use of federal money for any research that destroys human embryos to get stem cells.

Caplan said it would be a simple matter to pass a bill that would prevent implantation of cloned embryos. However, Congress is debating more stringent measures that would also prohibit cloning to make stem cells. One such bill, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, R., Kan., has passed the House.

That bill is stifling research, said Lanza, a biologist at Advanced Cell Technology. There is no way to get money since federal grants are not allowed and venture capitalists are reluctant to invest heavily in something that might be made illegal.


Lanza said his company was trying to get around the country’s ethical qualms about embryos and cloning by creating stem cells another way. Researchers take immature egg cells and “fool” them into acting like fertilized eggs, dividing a few times as if becoming an embryo, he said.

The cells thus created have no potential to develop into a living animal or baby, he said, but they show some abilities similar to stem cells derived from embryos.

Even this research could fall under the category of cloning and be banned under Brownback’s proposal, Lanza said.

Whether the United States will follow England and other countries that have encouraged cloning may depend on the results of the next election. John Kerry has promised to ease limits on stem-cell research.

But in general, Caplan said, Americans are more likely than Europeans to oppose abortion and the use of human embryos in research, whether made through cloning or some other way.

(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-11-04 1917EDT

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