On February 8, the British government gave a team of scientists permission to clone human embryos for medical research. Legal in the UK since 2001, this is only the second cloning project the government has allowed.
Led by Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the sheep, the team plans to study motor neuron disease, or MND. The disease kills motor neurons—cells in the brain and spinal cord that control movement. MND affects about 350,000 people, and kills 100,000 each year. Wilmut's team wants to study what goes wrong in the afflicted nerve cells.
Many scientists want to clone embryos for stem cells, to see if these can be used to repair or replace damaged body parts. Stem cells, which appear when embryos are just a few days old, develop into every kind of cell in the body. Scientists think they can harvest early stem cells and direct them to form new tissues to treat diseases ranging from Parkinson's to diabetes.
Wilmut, however, does not plan to grow replacement tissue. Instead, he wants to clone embryos from patients with MND, make the stem cells develop into nerve cells, and then compare their development to nerve cells from healthy embryos. The cells he creates can also be used to try out new drugs to treat the disease. Wilmut's experiments will produce no cloned babies, and the embryos will be destroyed after experiments.
Some patients' groups and researchers are excited. They think studying human embryo cells will provide more information and better treatments for disease animal experiments alone. But other groups are opposed. They think human cloning, especially the creation of embryos for experimentation and later destruction, is unethical.
What do you think? Should scientists be able to clone and destroy human embryos if it means they might be able to treat or cure diseases?