UK Backs Human Embryo Cloning

February 27, 2002; London; UK ( CNN) -- Britain's scientists have been given permission to pioneer the cloning of human embryos for research, and set up the world's first embryo cell bank. A House of Lords Committee ruled on Wednesday that embryo cloning -- which Federally-funded academics in the United States are not allowed to carrying out -- should be allowed to proceed under strict conditions.

Committee Chairman Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, said the cells taken from early embryos could be crucial for research into finding a cure for debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. "We conclude that for this to be fully realized, no avenue of research should be blocked off at this stage," Harries told a news conference.

Last year, Britain became the first country explicitly to allow the creation of embryos as a source of stem cells -- the primitive master cells which turn into other cell types and could be used to find cures to a wide range of diseases.

The regulations were held up by a court ruling in November. Prime Minister Tony Blair's government rushed through revised legislation and an appeal court upheld the new laws last month, but research was effectively put on hold until the announcement by the Lords' Committee. "Stem cells offer enormous potential for therapies in the future, for long-term therapies for many serious common diseases," Committee member Professor Chris Higgins said.

The British Medical Association said it strongly supported the verdict. "This research offers real hope to the millions of patients with conditions like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and diabetes," it said in a statement. The Committee said that one condition for granting a research licence to clone human embryos should be that any "cell line" generated from it be deposited in a stem cell bank. Before any licence was granted, health authorities should also ensure that there were no suitable existing cell lines in the bank.

"We are pleased that the Lords have recommended the establishment of a stem-cell bank as a matter of urgency. Such a bank will allow researchers to explore this enormous potential in a controlled environment," said Professor Sir George Radda, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council. Critics of human embryo cloning say it represents the first step on a ''slippery slope' to reproductive cloning -- a charge the committee strongly denied.