U.S. cloning advance shocks world

LONDON, England -- Political and religious leaders around the world have condemned the latest breakthrough in cloning research in which a U.S. company said it had cloned a human embryo for the first time.

The private U.S. research company -- Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), based in Worcester, Massachusetts -- said on Sunday it had cloned embryos by removing the DNA from human egg cells.

The DNA from an adult human body cell was then implanted into the egg cell, which was then stimulated to grow into a six-cell embryo.

How it was done

The technique used by Advanced Cell Technology scientists is called somatic cell nuclear transfer, also referred to as human therapeutic cloning.

A cell from a patient's body is combined with an egg cell that has had its DNA removed. This reprograms the body cell's DNA back to an embryonic state, and stem cells identical to the patient's are produced. Stem cells can form any cell or tissue in the human body.

Of eight eggs, two divided to form early embryos composed of four cells. One progressed to a six-cell stage before it stopped dividing. This breakthrough occurred October 13, 2001.

British genetics expert Dr. Patrick Dixon told the UK's Independent Television News: "The news is hugely significant because it shows that it's possible to take a cell from an adult, combine it with an egg and create an identical cloned embryo. If you implant it, you'll get a cloned baby."

"There are enormous ethical questions raised by this technology.

"Over 170 nations of the world have no legislation whatsoever preventing the birth of human clones. Sunday's announcement draws that step ever closer.

"We need global agreement and we need it urgently, or we will see clones born in many countries of the world."

The breakthrough was condemned by President George W. Bush.

"The president is 100 percent opposed to any cloning of human embryos," a White House aide told CNN.

The U.S. Congress has moved to outlaw all human cloning. A proposed new law is under consideration by the Senate.

The Vatican said the scientists had tampered with human life.

"Notwithstanding the humanistic intents... this calls for a calm but resolute appraisal which shows the moral gravity of this project and calls for unequivocal condemnation," the Vatican said in a statement.

"Cloning violates the dignity and the identity of human life," the influential Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone told Italy's Corriere della Sera daily.

Bertone later told Italian state television: "Therapeutic aims are excellent, they are praiseworthy. However, it is the means used that raise the questions."

Raymond Flynn, president of the National Catholic Alliance and a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said in a statement: "Some may call it a medical breakthrough. I believe it is a moral breakdown."

"Human reproduction is now in the hands of men, when it rightfully belongs in the hands of God," Flynn said.

Evelyn Gebhardt, a member of the European Parliament from Germany and coordinator for the Temporary Committtee on Human Genetics for the EP told CNN that while all EU members have signed the Charter on Fundamental Rights, which bans human cloning for reproductive purposes, different countries within the EU have different levels of legislation regarding cloning and embryo research.

"Patchwork is a good word. I think it is necessary to have common legislation, but I am not sure if it will be able to make this common legislation in the European Union because traditions and culture which exist in our countries are very different," Gebhardt said.

"So in Germany, we don't allow any of these things, it is aboslutely illegal. In other countries it is allowed, and there are the traditions, the cultures, which are behind that.

"The only thing we can do on the European level is that we define which research we will finance on the European level, and we did make decision in the last two weeks where we did say it can be financed in cases where it is the ethical committees that will allow that and only where it is not prohibited.

"And that is what we did in the European Union. I think the patchwork will be a patchwork for a long time."

In London emergency legislation banning human cloning was cleared the House of Lords Monday, after peers warned the practice was "unsafe and unethical."

The Human Reproductive Cloning Bill, tabled in the House of Lords last week, allows for a ban on cloned embryos being implanted into wombs but does not ban therapeutic cloning using cell nuclear replacement for research -- the technique used by the American firm and to produce Dolly the sheep.

Dr. Ian Wilmut, who led the team which produced the Dolly the sheep clone at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, told the UK Press Association the ACT report was a "very preliminary observation."

"It's almost impossible to know how far off they could be (from creating usable stem cells) but there's nothing in this report to suggest that the technique could be made to work immediately."

Australian Senator Brian Harradine accused ACT of "tinkering with the very essence of human life."

"Urgent action is needed to ban cloning of human embryos for any purpose and to cut off funding for any scientist or company involved," Harradine said in a statement.

A parliamentary committee recommended last month that Australia should ban all cloning to produce humans and creating embryos for experimentation but favoured using surplus human embryos from fertility programmes for research.

French bioethics specialist and President of the Liberal Democratic party Jean-Francois Mattei said on Monday: "It is extremely serious. In nine months we will be in a position to have a cloned baby."

In India, Reliance Life Sciences, one of two Indian firms whose stem cell work is eligible for U.S. funding, said the development "was inevitable."

"ACT's success could drive people into panic mode because of the impression that reproductive cloning is around the corner, but the fact is that if we use cloning for therapeutic purposes, this is a major advance," said Firuza Parikh, the company's founder and director.