February 28 2002 08:03
By Clive Cookson, Science Editor
Parliament on Wednesday removed the last legislative obstacle to stem cell research with human embryos, including cloning.
Scientists said the decision by a special Lords committee to permit embryo experiments opened the way for Britain to take a world lead in a field that offers huge potential for treating degenerative diseases and injuries.
Although parliament voted last year to permit human embryonic cloning and stem cell research under strict safeguards, it said experiments should not start until the Lords select committee, headed by the Bishop of Oxford, had reviewed the scientific and ethical issues.
Following the committee's favourable verdict on Wednesday, regulators and funding agencies moved fast. Last night, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority considered the first two applications to carry out embryonic stem cell research - and the Medical Research Council called for tenders from laboratories to set up and run a national stem cell bank as a resource for British scientists.
George Radda, MRC chief executive, said: "I think we have an obligation to build up human stem cell research quickly in the UK, now that parliament has approved it."
With a comprehensive regulatory framework in place, "there is now the very real prospect that the UK can become a world leader in stem cell research", said Richard Gardner, chairman of the Royal Society working group on stem cells.
"Unlike the US, the UK has proper regulation of research on embryonic stem cells in both the public and private sectors," said Prof Gardner. "The establishment of a stem cell bank will further ensure that all researchers have access to the materials necessary for investigating radical new therapies for a wide range of diseases and serious injuries."
Christopher Reeve, the former Superman actor, is counting on stem cell research to restore the movement he lost in a spinal injury six years ago. He told BBC Radio that he would come to Britain for treatment if research proceeded more quickly in the UK than the US.
Stem cells are immature, all-purpose cells with the potential to turn into any type of tissue. But Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, warned against expecting too much too soon: "There is a long way to go before the promising initial results of stem cell research can be put to therapeutic use."
The Lords considered both embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning - an extension of the technology which avoids rejection of transplanted tissues by deriving them directly from the patient.
The committee said "surplus" embryos left over from IVF treatment should be used for research in preference to embryos specially created through cloning, but it said the latter should be permitted where "there is a demonstrable and exceptional need which cannot be met in other ways".
"The scientific community is less sure now than it was a year ago that [therapeutic cloning] will be the panacea for all ills," the bishop said. "But it might be a useful research tool and we do not want to close any avenue."
Although mainstream Church of England
opinion supports human embryo and cloning research under strict regulation,
many Christian and pro-life groups denounced the Lords report. The Christian
Medical Fellowship said it was permitting "unethical, dangerous and unnecessary
© Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2002