LONDON - A leading bioethics body has called for human cloning to be allowed for medical research purposes. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics said therapeutic cloning should be allowed for the harvesting of stem cells.

At present, research on human embryos is allowed only for specific problems such as infertility, contraception, congenital diseases and prenatal diagnosis. The council's report, "'Stem Cell Therapy: the ethical issues," recommends that the law on embryo research in the UK be extended to include stem cell research. In addition, it says the use of somatic cells to create embryos for research should be allowed.

The council said there are no grounds for making a moral distinction between the types of research on embryos currently allowed and stem cell research on embryos.

It technically is possible to obtain human embryonic stem cells from aborted fetuses and frozen IVF embryos. But using DNA from a patient to produce a cloned embryo would prevent rejection of tissues or implants generated from the stem cells. The council, an independent body, does not recommend that cloning be allowed as a means of reproduction, but said, "The proposed creation of embryos by the transfer of a nucleus from a somatic cell, for research into deriving stem cells, offers such potential medical benefits that research for such purposes should be allowed."

Sandy Thomas, director of the council, said, "The scope of stem cell research promises major advances in health care. Cells and tissues could be developed and used for drug testing, and new therapies could become available for people suffering from burns and spinal cord injuries, as well as for diseases such as leukemia and spinal injury."

In June, the government's main advisory bodies on such issues, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, both recommended that therapeutic cloning be given the go-ahead. But the government then set up another body, the Expert Advisory Group on Therapeutic Cloning, to investigate further, and this group has yet to report.