LONDON The House of Lords approved a proposed change to government regulations yesterday that makes Britain the first country to effectively legalize the creation of cloned human embryos.
The measure is aimed at allowing research on 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 babies by cloning would remain outlawed.
The change passed late last night after an amendment that would have delayed the law in order to create a special committee to review ethical and scientific issues 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, with many lords expressing concern that ethical questions were being sidelined in the rush to be at the forefront of medical research.
Others urged giving scientists the go-ahead now. They said treatments developed through embryo research and cloning could revolutionize medicine. It offers the hope of engineering transplants that would prevent or cure scores of illnesses, from diabetes to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
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 embryo research.
“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 said.
Lord Alton of Liverpool, who proposed the amendment to set up a committee to review ethical and scientific questions, urged the lords to withhold approval of the legislation.
“Since 1990, when miracle cures were promised for 4,000 inherited diseases, between 300,000 and half a million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon. There have been no cures, but our willingness to walk this road has paved the way for more and more demand,” Mr. Alton said.
The British government was seeking to relax rules that limit medical research on human embryos under the 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act. It strictly limits research on donated embryos to such areas as studies on infertility and the detection of birth defects.
The changes, which passed the House of Commons by a wide margin in December, expand the types of allowable research to include stem-cell experiments.
Scientists have said that stem cells, harvested from early-stage embryos or fetal tissue, will revolutionize medicine and someday yield remarkable cures.
It is unlikely any legislation sanctioning the creation of cloned embryos for research would pass in the United States. President Bush opposes federal funds for research that involves destroying human embryos, and several bills aimed at outlawing cloning are at various stages in Congress.
Currently in the United States, early stage embryonic stem cells obtained from the donated or purchased embryos produced in private laboratories especially fertility clinics may be used in certain research. Fertility clinics are a prime source of the cells because they produce an oversupply of embryos for in vitro fertilization and ultimately destroy the unused ones.
Britain’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, which polices embryo research, also has promised to consider cloning applications for some types of research, including certain stem-cell experiments.
The stem-cell research inevitably would involve embryo cloning because physicians ultimately want to treat ill patients with cells from their own bodies. Those cells would then be altered, cloned and returned to the patient to replace damaged or dead cells causing illness.
Scientists would remove the nucleus of a donor egg and replace it with a cell from a sick patient. The egg would then be induced to divide and start growing into an embryo. The cloned cells would be genetically identical to the patient’s and therefore could theoretically overcome problems of transplant rejection, caused when the immune system fights foreign tissue.
Scientists foresee extracting the stem cells from the embryo when it is three or four days old and directing the cells’ growth in the lab so the cells become any desired cell or tissue type for transplant.
“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 proposed changes.
“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.”