British scientists are preparing to start medical research involving human embryo cells as soon as a government ban on therapeutic cloning is lifted.
Teams from at least five universities working on projects that could lead to new treatments for diabetes, strokes and certain cancers are eagerly awaiting the announcement later this month.
An expert panel, chaired by the chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, is expected to recommend the government end its block on therapeutic cloning and related research by changing regulations under the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.
The scientists hope research into cells taken from human embryos will allow the United Kingdom to compete with the United States in a field that could spark a revolution in medicine.
Peter Andrew's team at Sheffield University has already attempted unsuccessfully to grow human embryonic stem (es) cells sent from the US.
His team has instead used human cancer cells that act very similarly to pursue the basic science of embryonic development rather than new therapies. But he would be one of the first in the UK to start work on human es-cells if the ban is removed. "We would be interested in deriving our own embryonic stem cells if and when it is possible to do so," he said.
Keith Campbell, who recently left the Roslin Institute - where he was jointly credited with the creation of Dolly the sheep - to accept a chair at Nottingham, said: "It's a fascinating area that has huge potential therapeutic benefits. But there is a long way to go in applying this technology in humans and, although I have thought about it, I won't be using humans."
University researchers in Sheffield, Edinburgh, Oxford, Nottingham and Cardiff are studying es-cells in mice, which can develop into all of the different types of cell found in an adult.
This is helping them to understand the development of embryos as well as investigate the function of individual genes.
Such research raises the prospect of new therapies if transferred to humans.
Among those known to be keen to begin this work in combination with cloning techniques is Austin Smith at the Centre for Genome Research at the University of Edinburgh.
In principle, the therapeutic cloning he has championed could create a potentially unlimited supply of replacement tissue and maybe even organs for transplant.
Martin Evans, who pioneered mouse es-cell research and is a member of Professor Donaldson's expert panel, said therapeutic cloning might have great potential but he did not intend to switch to such work himself.
He warned that many of the nation's most promising young scientists in the field have already gone abroad, a claim echoed by other experts.
"All of the best people in my laboratory moved to America in the 1980s because we didn't have the money to keep them working here," he said.