Scientists at Newcastle University made history this week as they were granted the first UK licence to clone human cells, writes Alan Thomson.
The Newcastle Human Embryonic Stem Cell Group can now clone embryonic human cells for use in research into and treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes. Practical clinic treatments could be available in just over a decade.
The Newcastle group is thought to be one of only two centres in the world where human cell cloning is carried out, the other being in Korea. It is certainly the first in Europe.
The group had applied to the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority for a licence in February after becoming one of two UK research groups to derive human embryonic stem cells from IVF embryos that had not been implanted.
In principle, embryonic stem cells have the potential to become any type of cell in the human body, meaning they can be grown to order to replace diseased and damaged parts of the body.
The licence means that the group can clone cells from a living donor or patient. This is done by transplanting the nucleus from a donor cell, which could, for example, be a skin cell from a patient who has lost tissue through disease, into an unfertilised human egg.
The egg is them stimulated to divide, producing cloned copies of the donor cells. Tissue cloned in this way ought to be accepted by a patient's body with little or no risk of rejection.
As the world's media descended on Newcastle to report the event, Linda Lako, a member of the Newcastle group, told The Times Higher : "It is very exciting to be here right now - the atmosphere is fantastic.
"It has been a long, long wait. But when there are all these people congratulating you it makes all of the team members' work at night and the weekends, when they should have been with their families, worthwhile."
The stem cell group this week launched a funding drive to enable it to buy the latest equipment that it will need to progress its work on therapeutic cloning.