LONDON ¿ The UK government will legislate this week to ban human reproductive cloning, after a surprise legal judgment that implied it would be legal to clone humans in the UK, and at the same time threatened to undermine the legal framework for stem cell research established at the start of 2001.

In a case brought by the ProLife Alliance, an anti-abortion political party, the UK¿s High Court ruled that contrary to the accepted view, existing legislation does not cover human reproductive cloning and stem cell research. The judge said that embryos formed by cell nuclear transfer are not legally embryos, and are therefore outside the scope of the 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act.

Bruno Quintavalle of the ProLife Alliance said, in the light of the judgment, ¿The government has no power to license or fund any form of cloning, whether for experimental or live-birth purposes.¿

In January 2001, the 1990 act was amended to allow stem cells to be harvested from embryos for research purposes. The government reiterated that human reproductive cloning was illegal under the act, and would stay illegal.

Lord Hunt, the health minister, said of last week¿s judgment, ¿We are totally opposed to human reproductive cloning, and have said we will introduce legislation to make this a specific criminal offense.¿

On stem cell research he said, ¿It is important to stress that stem cell research using embryos created by egg and sperm are not affected.¿ To date, no license applications have been made for stem cell research using embryos created by cell nuclear replacement.

The UK BioIndustry Association pointed out that cell nuclear replacement requires eggs, and therefore cannot take place without the approval of the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority, which polices the fertilization and embryology act. ¿There is de facto regulation in this country, and the biotechnology industry fully supports this,¿ the association said. ¿What is vital is that there is a clear, transparent regulatory system in place that gives confidence so that vital work using embryonic stem cells can proceed unheeded.¿