LONDON - The UK government has opened the door to cloning human embryos for medical research, accepting the recommendations of a report that would give the UK a worldwide lead in terms of providing a legal framework for this type of research.

However, the move will have to be approved by Parliament in the autumn, with members of Parliament having a free vote, in what is regarded as an issue of conscience.

The existing ban on reproductive cloning would stay in place, and there would be a ban on mixing adult human somatic cells with the eggs of any animals to create hybrids.

If parliament approves the recommendations, the scope of the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Act will be extended to allow stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, not currently allowed under the act.

Crispin Kirkman, CEO of the UK BioIndustry Association, welcomed the news. "The use of embryonic tissues is already permitted for specific types of infertility research. We believe that extending the scope of permitted embryo research in the UK to encompass regenerative cell therapies will pave the way for treatments for hitherto untreatable diseases."

However, Kirkman added that cloning should not become a routine way of creating stem cells. "Scientists believe that knowledge gained from these areas of research will ultimately make it possible to avoid the use of human embryos at all," he said.

In December 1998, the government advisory bodies, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Commission and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, jointly recommended that research on human embryos up to 14 days should be allowed for two new purposes: the correction of mitochondrial genetic diseases, and in stem cell research. The government prevaricated by setting up another group, under the chief medical officer Liam Donaldson, to look at the matter again.

It finally published the group's report, "Stem Cell Research: Medical Progress with Responsibility," last week, and said it would recommend acceptance of its proposals and will put forward legislation to implement them.

The report concluded that using embryos "to increase understanding about human disease and disorders and their cell-based treatments should be permitted," in view of "the great potential to relieve suffering and treat disease."

No other European country has taken a clear legislative position on therapeutic cloning, while in the U.S., federal funding of cloning experiments is banned, although the experiments are legal.

Any experiments carried out in the UK will be under license to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which must be satisfied there is no other way of carrying out the research. Individuals whose sperm or eggs are used to create embryos used in research must give specific consent indicating that any embryos may be used to derive stem cells.

Some 48,000 embryos that no longer were needed for in vitro fertilization were used in research between August 1991 and March 1998, and 118 embryos were created in the course of research in the same period.

A body is to be set up to monitor progress of research involving stem cells from embryonic sources, to ensure the promised benefits are delivered, and to identify any problems that arise.

The government is to encourage the research councils to establish a program for stem cell research and to set up a collection of stem cells for research use.

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