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British government action on cloning stirs international debate
LONDON -- It could be months before Britain's Parliament decides officially whether to relax its ban on cloning human embryos, but Wednesday's report that it may do so freshened global debate.
In Berlin, politicians suggested revisiting Germany's 10-year-old ban on producing human embryos, and scientists in the United States have called for a removal of the prohibition on using government money for cloning research.
"We have a law protecting embryos based on very strict rules," German Health Minister Andrea Fischer told West German Radio. "And we have just started debate on it because it is 10 years old and much has happened since."
A British government panel has recommended that scientists be permitted to create cloned human embryos for the purpose of harvesting stem cells, a process called "therapeutic cloning."
"Stem cell research opens up a new medical frontier," Britainís chief medical officer Dr. Liam Donaldson said. "It offers enormous potential for new treatment for chronic disease and injury and the relief of human suffering."
Stem cells are parent cells to all the human bodyís systems. Human embryos under 14 days old are in essence all stem cells, which have the potential to grow into any other type of cell -- organ, blood, bone, muscle or other tissue. Scientists believe that if such cells are extracted before they begin to specialize, their growth can be directed in a lab.
The hope is that one day it may be possible to grow brain nerve cells to replace those destroyed by Parkinsonís disease, skin to repair burns or pancreatic cells to produce insulin for diabetics.
'We should take our time'
The issue provokes deep public concern, especially since the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997. But the debate takes different paths in Europe and the United States.
In the United States, debate centers on embryo research rather than on cloning, said ethicist Glenn McGee of the University of Pennsylvania.
But Germans still remember Nazi attempts to engineer a "master race," adding deeper currents to what is already an emotional question.
"We should take our time," cautioned Germany's Fischer, who is a member of the environmentalist Greens party. "There is no reason to make a knee-jerk reaction now based on the British decision."
Leaders of Germanyís Christian churches have denounced cloning as morally wrong.
"Together with the (Roman) Catholic Church, we believe manipulation of the embryo is a step in the wrong direction," said Evangelical Church spokesman Thomas Krueger. "Our barbaric past is yet one more reason to oppose it."
Although the theory of eugenics (a movement devoted to improving the human species by controlling hereditary factors through selective breeding) may have reached an apex in Nazi Germany, it also had its proponents in early 20th century America.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health wants to change the law making therapeutic cloning research illegal for government-funded researchers, and plans to issue revised guidelines on the subject later this year.
But conservatives in the U.S. Congress such as Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas say there is no reason to destroy any human embryo, even those frozen specimens now left over by people attempting in-vitro fertilization treatment for infertility.
Brownback and others have threatened legislation to outlaw even the use of private money for embryo research.
"Clearly we must continue to fight to help cure disease and alleviate suffering," Brownback said in April. "However, it is never acceptable to deliberately kill one innocent human being in order to help another."
Efforts proceed despite controversy
Others call for intensified research on using adult bone marrow cells called stromal cells, which early studies indicate can be tricked into becoming nerve cells.
Yet Republican U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter has sponsored a bill that would allow scientists to use leftover IVF embryos for stem-cell research with the mother's consent.
"Making an embryonic stem cell, even from a nuclear transplant from an adult, in no way demonstrates that the embryo is going to be viable," noted the University of Pennsylvaniaís McGee, who is editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Bioethics. "I donít think thereís a substantive ethical issue here -- or a substantive scientific issue."
Even doctors are divided on the idea, and in Germany at least, dissenting voices are in the majority.
"This will be the first time in history that humans themselves will be used to supply raw materials," said Joerg-Dietrich Hoppe, chairman of the Federal Chamber of German Doctors. "No one should seek to go it alone."
Former U.S. Food and Drug Administration director Dr. Frank Young said initial findings on stromal cells confirm "that proposed federal guidelines for destroying human embryos for their stem cells are not only immoral and contrary to the will of Congress, but also quite unnecessary."
Vigorous dissention does not stop individual efforts from progressing, however.
In the United States, large stem-cell research companies have already gone beyond the scope of British concerns, McGee said. And in Germany, a group of scientists said earlier this year that they planned to exploit a legal loophole that would allow them to experiment on imported stem cells.
"I think it is the legislators who are squeamish," said stem cell researcher James Robl of the University of Massachusetts.
The biggest problem will be trying to clone humans in the first place, Robl said. While sheep, cattle, goats, mice, monkeys and, most recently, pigs have been cloned, larger primates are a different matter. Cloning pigs and mice is considered quite difficult.
CNN Correspondent Jennifer Eccleston, CNN.com Writer Michele Dula Baum and Reuters contributed to this report.
NIH publishes draft guidelines for stem cell research
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