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Human cloning (and human embryo experimentation)


Human embryo experimentation, including experimentation to destruction, was permitted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990. Embryos left over from IVF procedures have been donated for research; eggs have been obtained from women undergoing sterilisation and then fertilised by sperm from donors. A steady supply of human embryos has been used for research on contraceptives, abortion vaccines and drugs. It was estimated that between 1990 and 2001 between 300,000 and half a million embryos had been either experimented on or destroyed.


On February 23, 1997, the world was introduced to Dolly, a six-month-old lamb cloned by scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh from a single cell from the breast tissue of a six-year-old sheep. Dolly had been produced by a process known as cell nuclear replacement. The nucleus from the donor cell, with the DNA it contains, is placed together with the cytoplasm from an unfertilised egg and an electrical current is used to start the growing process. No sperm is used. The resulting embryo is placed within the womb of a surrogate mother and brought to birth. Virtually the only DNA it contains is that of the cell donor. It is in fact the cell donor's later-born identical twin.


With the news of Dolly, the question immediately arose: if cloned animals, why not cloned humans? Scientists involved in cloning, perhaps nervous of the intense media interest, said technology in cloning animals could not be used with humans, it would be a considerable time before human cloning would be possible, and anyway, people would not be able to find scientists willing to clone a human for them. It quickly became clear, however, that human cloning was a possibility. Doctors began to receive requests for cloned babies, from people who were unable to conceive by normal means, people who wanted to clone loved ones who were dead or dying, and people who wanted a cloned child that could provide compatible tissue for transplant to a sibling.


The majority of people in Britain were opposed to human cloning. Opponents of cloning pointed out that 277 embryos had been used before Dolly was successfully produced. Three lambs had died shortly after birth and had malformed internal organs, others were 20 per cent larger than they should have been and one grew to twice the normal size.


In Britain, a four-person committee from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission recommended in 1998 that cloning humans to produce babies should be forbidden, but cloning human embryos for medical research should be permitted. All four members were scientists who were in favour of human embryo research. Critics claimed their advice had been discredited after it was revealed that two of them had links with pharmaceutical companies which might be expected to benefit from such research.

Commercial interests


Scientists in favour of cloning embryos said stem cells, which can become virtually any kind of human tissue, taken from the embryos for research purposes, could lead to successful treatment for a number of diseases, possibly replacing the need for transplant surgery and allowing repair of organs which cannot be transplanted. If cloning were not permitted, Britain could be left behind in a whole new market which could benefit the economy. Huge commercial interests were said to be involved.


Opponents of cloning said such cloning would involve the destruction of human life. When stem cells are obtained from embryos, the embryos are destroyed. Medical benefits were not certain: the Government was simply being asked to license research which might be helpful. In any event, stem cells for research could be obtained from adults and from umbilical cord blood without the need for cloning or involving the death of a human embryo. Permitting the cloning of embryos, pro-lifers said, was also likely to lead to full reproductive cloning.


The Government said full reproductive cloning would not be allowed but more evidence was required of the potential benefits and risks of cloning for research purposes. It set up a second committee under the chairmanship of Dr Liam Donaldson, the Government's chief medical officer. In 2000, the Donaldson committee's report recommended the legalisation of human cloning to produce stem cells for research purposes. The Government promised legislation to implement the recommendation, despite an appeal from the European Parliament not to do so.


The House of Commons voted to permit the cloning of human embryos for research purposes, the embryos subsequently being destroyed, by 366 votes to 174. The House of Lords backed the decision in January, 2001, and the UK became the only country in the West to legalise the creation of human clones for research. Peers complained that the Government was seeking to rush through legislation with a parliamentary order, which allowed only limited debate, rather than a full bill. An amendment, however, which would have blocked cloning until the matter had been considered by a select committee, was defeated by 212 votes to 92.


The ProLife Alliance gained permission for a judicial review of the Government's decision in the High Court, arguing that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, on which the new legislation was based, referred to fertilised embryos, and did not cover cloned embryos, in which normal fertilisation had not taken place. At the High Court, Mr Justice Crane agreed. (The Appeal Court later overturned his decision, and when the Alliance appealed, five law lords rejected the appeal unanimously.) Mr Justice Crane's decision meant that there was no law covering the creation of cloned embryos for research. It also meant there was no regulation forbidding the production of cloned babies.

Not happy


The Government rushed the Human Reproductive Cloning Bill through Parliament in November 2001 and it was given royal assent in December. It prohibited 'the placing in a woman of a human embryo which has been created otherwise than by fertilisation,' but did not touch on the creation of embryos for experimentation.


Pro-lifers, while still not happy that the legislation did not forbid the creation of cloned embryos for research, pointed out that it did not forbid planting a cloned human embryo in the body of a man or an animal, or into an artificial womb. It did not prevent women travelling to have cloned embryos implanted abroad, nor did it ban the sale or export of cloned embryos or the creation of animal/human hybrids.


While some scientists insisted that the production of cloned embryos for research was important, offering real hope of treatment for such diseases as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, others continued to insist that there was no evidence that stem cells from cloned embryos were of any value for therapeutic purposes, and that stem cells obtained from adults, as well as being obtained by more ethically acceptable means, would be equally useful for research purposes as well as more stable.


In 2002, it was announced that the United Kingdom was to have the first ever national stem cell bank containing stem cells extracted from thousands of human embryos. Couples undergoing IVF treatment would be asked to donate spare embryos. Scientists would create other embryos for the purpose, some of them possibly by cloning. The bank would be set up by the Medical Research Council, which awarded a £2.6 million contract to the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control to run the bank. It would be funded jointly by the MRC and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, both of which receive funds from the British Government.

A study by researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Boston, Massachusetts concluded that attempts to clone animals or humans successfully will almost always be doomed to failure. They found large numbers of abnormal genes in cloned animals, and decided that the cloning process jeopardises the integrity of the clone's entire genetic make-up. Professor Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly, the first cloned sheep, said there was abundant evidence that animal cloning could and did go wrong and there was no justification for believing this would not happen with humans.

Open for business


Since the creation of Dolly, the cloned sheep, scientists in different parts of the world have cloned rats, mice, rabbits, goats, pigs, cows, a cat, a deer, a mule and a horse. Several hundred embryos and nine would-be surrogate mother mares were used before the successfully-cloned horse arrived. Because of emerging evidence that the process of cloning damages the genetic mechanisms that enable normal development, it is now commonly supposed that a large number of donated eggs and volunteer surrogate mothers would be needed before a cloned human child could be produced.


The British Government allocated £40 million for stem cell research. Prime Minister Tony Blair said he wanted Britain to lead the world in cloning human embryos for research. Potential benefits, he claimed, were huge. A consortium of leading financiers and top scientists decided to launch a £100 million fund to finance stem cell research. Plans were put in hand for a national stem cell research institute, costing £16 million. In 2005, Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt announced that the Government would spend more than £1 billion on biotechnology by 2008. 'We want to send a signal to scientists that Britain is open for business in some of the most controversial areas,' she said.


Critics claimed scientists' claims about possible cures from embryonic stem cells had been over-hyped; scientists had had to make extravagant claims in order to obtain funding for research. Do No Harm, a coalition on research ethics, pointed out that therapies using stem cells obtained from adults had been used to treat large numbers of disease conditions in humans; stem cells obtained from embryos had been used to treat none.


A team from Newcastle University's Centre for Life, granted the first licence to create human embryos for research, created cloned human embryos for the first time in Britain.


One of the problems with human embryo research was the shortage of human eggs. Scientists wanted to take cow or rabbit eggs, remove the nucleus and replace it with human DNA to form a hybrid embryo from which stem cells for research could be taken. Mixing tissue from different species, in particular from human and non-human species, presents further ethical problems.

Scientists outraged


The Government announced a public consultation. About 80 per cent of submissions to the consultation were opposed to creating hybrid embryos, and the Government proposed to ban their creation. Scientists were outraged. The Government first decided to finance another consultation, then published a Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which would allow the creation of hybrid embryos. In the House of Lords, an attempt to outlaw their creation was defeated by 268 votes to 96. In the Commons, an attempt to ban the creation of hybrids was defeated by 336 votes to 176. Votes were likely influenced by scientists' argument that research using hybrid embryos was likely to lead to cures for serious diseases (although there is no evidence that this is the case), by a desire to see the United Kingdom as a world leader in embryo research, and by large amounts of money to be made by the biotech industry. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was finally passed in 2008.


In November 2007 Professor Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan developed a technique of reprogramming skin cells to form stem cells. The new method appeared simpler, more efficient and cheaper than attempting to obtain stem cells from embryos, without any of the ethical objections involved. More research was needed before stem cells obtained by the technique were ready for use in patients, but some scientists were calling it the greatest scientific discovery in 25 years and the beginning of the end of embryonic stem cell research.


Professor Wilmut announced that he was abandoning cloning human embryos, not for ethical reasons, as he believed embryonic research to develop treatment of disease was acceptable, but because he believed the new method had more potential.


Although millions of pounds have been spent on embryonic stem cell research and although some scientists have insisted embryonic stem cell research needs to continue, an increasing number of scientists have turned to research on stem cells from adult sources.