A working party convened by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recommended in a discussion paper that the use of early human embryos to derive stem cells for use in research on new therapies should be allowed, subject to safeguards (see also item in March newsletter about Royal Society statement on therapeutic cloning). In the UK, it is currently legal to use embryos up to 14 days old for research on reproduction, but not for research into new treatments for disease. The working party took the view that there was no moral distinction between these purposes and that there were adequate embryos available for stem cell research from the excess embryos created in IVF treatment. The group also considered that fetal tissue derived from aborted fetuses could legitimately be used for obtaining embryonic germ cells (the cells in a fetus that are destined to develop into sperm or egg cells) but that it was important that specific consent for this use of fetal material should be obtained. Finally, the group considered the technique of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), in which a nucleus from a cell from an adult animal is put into an oocyte (developing egg cell) from which the nucleus has been removed. This procedure could potentially be used to obtain stem cells that were genetically almost identical to a donor (with possibly far-reaching opportunities for disease therapy), but it is also the method that has been used to clone animals such as Dolly the sheep. The group recommends that research on SCNT in humans should be licensed but that it should be illegal to allow an embryo created by SCNT to be implanted in a uterus.
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