Brussels, 25 Nov 2002
Ian Wilmut, the leader of the team that cloned Dolly the sheep in the UK, has applied for a licence enabling him to clone human embryos.
Professor Wilmut has applied to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for a licence allowing him to take an unfertilised human egg and to try to develop it into an early embryo, in a procedure called parthenogenesis or 'virgin birth'.
The technique will lead to the creation of cloned embryos that can develop without the need for sperm. The eggs will, however, not be implanted in a womb, but cells will be taken from them for study purposes.
Professor Wilmut says that his laboratory, at the Roslin Institute in Scotland, does not intend to develop the embryos beyond a microscopic cluster of cells.
If successful, the experiment to clone human embryos in order to research diseases could provide alternatives to animal testing. 'What we have in mind is to use this technology to produce cells to treat diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's,' says Professor Wilmut.
An unfertilised egg is stimulated in the laboratory so it starts dividing and becoming an embryo on its own. Essentially, the egg is 'fooled' into thinking it has been fertilised, and begins the division process. Similar experiments have been carried out on eggs from animals, including monkeys.
Any research involving the creation of human embryos remains highly controversial. Some scientists do not regard the 'embryos' created via this process as genuine embryos - there is possibility that they would not be considered as such by the terms of the UK's 1990 Human Embryology Act. These embryos rarely survive beyond the early stages of development.
A panel of experts advising the UK government has recommended the 'limited' use of 'therapeutic cloning' - that is, cloning technology aimed at producing medical treatments is allowed.