LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's human cloning watchdog on Wednesday considers Europe's first application to clone a human embryo to obtain cells that could be used to treat otherwise incurable diseases.
Britain has rigid laws against reproductive cloning to produce designer babies, but does permit therapeutic cloning under strict conditions to battle illnesses like diabetes.
The outcome of the application, which is not expected to be decided this week, is set to reignite the intense debate over the ethics of human cloning.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) will be considering an application from Newcastle University's Institute of Human Genetics to make a clone to produce insulin.
The university's Professor Alison Murdoch said the application was a first in Europe and could produce a medical miracle in the fight against disease that would not otherwise be possible.
But she also told BBC radio that even if given the go-ahead in the near future it could be a decade before any practical cure was available.
"We are trying to create material that would be genetically identical to the person that needs treatment," she said, stressing that her team was not attempting to produce cloned babies but collections of so-called stem cells that can divide into any tissue in the body.
"We are using the same sort of scientific techniques that the embryologists in the fertility centre here used to help couples achieve a pregnancy. "But we are using their scientific knowledge and the skills they have to create cures for serious diseases," she added.
But David King of the Human Genetics Alert campaign group said the technique was morally questionable and likely to be copied in countries lacking cloning legislation.
"If they develop the technology for cloning human embryos it is a present for those people who do want to clone babies," he told BBC radio. "Research gets published on the Internet and it could be used in a country that doesn't have any legislation."
"It does cross an important ethical line because what it does is create embryos purely for the purposes of research rather than using surplus embryos," he added.
An HFEA spokeswoman said no decision on the application was likely before next week at the earliest.
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