Scientists should recognise the government is right to delay changing the law on cloning, says Ruth Deech
In Britain we have learned that the introduction of radical scientific advances is best achieved without haste and without stealth. With in vitro fertilisation and embryo research, for example, a debate raged for over ten years from the birth of Louise Brown in 1978 to the introduction of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in 1990.
Every step forward was followed by one back, and embryo research came close to being banned. Eventually, the act permitted human embryos to be kept outside the body for up to 14 days and legalised research in infertility, congenital disease, miscarriage, contraception and detection of abnormalities. It allayed fears by providing for the licensing of research and treatment and for regulation of associated activities.
Last week the government announced that it was maintaining the legislative ban on human reproductive cloning, and was considering the implications of the proposed addition of a further category of licensable research on embryos that would open the door to cell nucleus replacement or "therapeutic cloning". "Cloning" has two distinct applications. One is reproductive: the production of an embryo formed from an enucleated egg fused with the nucleus of an adult cell with the intention of causing a pregnancy and ultimately a baby with only one genetic parent. This is prohibited by the HFEA and by law, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is entrusted with maintaining the ban.
The second type of cloning starts with the production of an embryo in the same way - cell nucleus replacement (CNR) - but it is for therapeutic purposes, most likely the creation of a cultured cell line for cell or tissue therapy. People with tissues or organs damaged by injury or disease could provide their own somatic nuclei and, by using these to replace nuclei in their own or donated eggs, individual stem cells (not embryos) could be produced in culture. These might be used for patients with burns, with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, without risk of rejection. It is this CNR technique that has been referred by the government to a scientific review body under chief medical officer Liam Donaldson to review any risks and implications.
Last December the HFEA and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission issued a Report on Cloning Issues surveying the ethical issues and potential arising from both forms of cloning. The report recommended the government consider adding to the list of permitted categories of embryo research one allowing the development of therapy for diseased or damaged tissues or organs.
Last week's apparent delay in implementing this was met with dismay by scientists eager to press ahead. They have warned that delay or obstruction might hold them back in the race to find new cures or force them to take their work abroad to unregulated countries. In fact, it would have been surprising if the government had agreed to immediate legislation in this sensitive and controversial field. There might have been a public outcry, with the risk that the legalisation of such research might never have received further consideration.
It is not unreasonable for the government to proceed cautiously,following anxieties about genetically modified food and BSE. The issue has not been kicked out to the long grass, but turned over to an expert body to take forward. It was interesting to note that the audience for Question Time after the announcement was well disposed towards therapeutic cloning, whereas when the HFEA and HGAC carried out their consultation early in 1998 the public was more hostile.
It may comfort scientists unhappy at the delay to recognise that there is no immediate hurry. The benefits of stem cell research lie some years in the future. They may be all the greater if we take care now to get the decision right. Tight regulation has not stopped Britain from maintaining its lead in certain areas of research - it is no coincidence Dolly was cloned here. Caution and safety engender confidence.
Ruth Deech is chair of HFEA.
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