17 May 2005
Professor Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh has applied to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for a licence to produce and use cloned human embryos for work on motor neurone disease (see BBC news item). This is the first application for a therapeutic cloning licence in the UK, although the procedure has been legal for research purposes since 2001. Professor Wilmut has stressed that his team has no intention of performing reproductive cloning, which is illegal; embryos created for research purposes would be destroyed once they were no longer required.
Professor Wilmut is renowned for his groundbreaking work in cloning that led to the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, in 1996. The firm behind the animal cloning carried out at the Roslin Insitute, PPL Therapeutics, is on the verge of bankruptcy and sold the cloning technology to Exeter Life Sciences at the start of 2004. Dolly suffered from various medical complaints and died prematurely, raising concerns about the safety of cloning from adult cells.
Motor neurone disease (MND) refers to a group of diseases caused by degeneration of motor neurones (nerve cells) that control muscles involved in movement, speech, swallowing and breathing. MND is a progressive and fatal condition, taking on average three to four years to run its course. It affects about 5,000 people in the UK, and there is no cure. Professor Wilmut's team want to use DNA from a motor neurone disease patient and implant it into a human egg from which the DNA has been removed, to create an embryo with the genetic material of an MND patient. Cells from the embryo would be used for research into the disease. Professor Wilmut is quoted as having said: "Because at this early stage the embryo does not have that key human characteristic of being aware to me it would be immoral not to take this opportunity to study diseases". However, opposition to the cloning licence application is anticipated; a spokesman for the charity Life UK said that the term therapeutic cloning