- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2000

The British government said yesterday it will introduce legislation to allow scientists to clone human embryos for use in medical research.
If approved, the legislation would make Britain the first country to authorize cloning of humans.
But the measure to be introduced which is based on recommendations by a government-commissioned panel led by the country's chief medical officer would not allow human cloning to create babies.
"The transfer of an embryo created by cell nuclear replacement into a woman's uterus should remain a criminal offense," the government report said.
The British government wants to lift the ban on human cloning for research in order to gain the potential medical benefits of what are known as embryonic "stem cells," the parent cells of the human body that go on to form most types of cells and tissues.
"We're talking about research at this stage, not treatment. There is major, major medical potential, but we need medical research to see whether this potential can be realized," said Dr. Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer.
Officials at the National Institutes of Health yesterday had no official response to the news. Pressed for reaction, an NIH spokesman said, "Human cloning is an anathema to President Clinton."
An embryo is a living clump 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 before they start to specialize, they can be directed in a lab to become any desired cell or tissue type for transplant.
Under current law, Britain allows scientists to conduct research on embryos up to 14 days old for fertility, congenital and other disorders. But it does not permit them to be used for the study of diseases acquired in adulthood. The cloning of humans either to create babies or embryos for research was banned in 1990.
The report by the Donaldson panel, released yesterday, recommended the 14-day law remain and that legislation be introduced to ban hybrid animal-human embryos. It also reaffirmed the ban on creating cloned babies, but endorsed the cloning of embryos for strictly controlled medical research.
Thomas H. Murray, a member of the presidentially appointed National Bioethics Advisory Committee [NBAC], which has issued position papers on both human cloning and stem cell research in this country, said, "The British report goes significantly beyond what NBAC has recommended." NBAC did not endorse using federal funds for creating embryos for medical research.
"It wasn't that the commission thought it was wrong … it thought there was no compelling public policy case for federal funding," Mr. Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in New York, said yesterday in a telephone interview.
Congress has blocked federal funding of embryo research. But NIH officials have made it clear they will fund pioneering but controversial stem cell research that may provide cures for diabetes, Alzheimer's and other diseases under soon-to-be-released guidelines that will prohibit tax dollars from being spent to acquire embryos.
Former NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus told NBAC last year that a ban on federal funding of human embryo research does not apply to stem cell research because the cells used in such experiments come from nonliving fetuses.
Both Mr. Murray and Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said it's too soon to know if the British action will have any impact in the United States or elsewhere.
In the United States, "abortion drives this subject nothing more, nothing less," said Mr. Caplan, reached in Minnesota.
"The British do not have the same abortion polemics and politics," he said.
Mr. Caplan said the United States would not follow Britain's lead if Republican George W. Bush is elected president in November. "But if [Al] Gore is elected, it will," he said, predicting an executive order.
The bioethicist said he understands both sides of the debate. "One side says destroying a cloned embryo for science is murder. The other side says, 'If we don't do something, that person will never get out of a wheelchair,' " Mr. Caplan said.
"I think the truth is somewhere in the middle," he said.
Mr. Caplan added, "It's tragic and sad to have to explore some avenues of research by sacrificing an embryo … but it doesn't make sense that the destruction of a frozen embryo is put on a par with a human being."
Embryonic stem cells, which have been called "primitive" and "immortal," have the ability to divide without limits and to give rise to specialized cells that eventually develop into toes, ears, brain cells, blood and other body parts.
Scientists speculate that further experimentation will lead to developing the ability to direct stem cells to grow into certain types of tissue that can be used to repair disease-or accident-damaged bodies. Injecting stem cells might delay certain aspects of aging, and the research appears likely to create a new form of medicine.
However, Mr. Caplan acknowledges that stem cell research is a "continent away from curing anything."
As for those who worry the British legislation could be a springboard for Frankenstein-type abuses, Mr. Murray said such "dangers are not relevant" to stem cell research.
In Britain, the vote on the legislation is expected in Parliament this fall. Individual members will be allowed to vote their conscience instead of being made to follow the party line.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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