An Australian in-vitro-fertilization firm has received the go-ahead this week from its government to achieve what scientists have still failed to achieve: clone human embryos to obtain embryonic stem cells.
Sydney IVF was granted the first licenses issued by the Australian government allowing the creation of cloned embryos for the purpose of extracting human embryonic stem cells, the Embryo Research Licensing Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) announced on its Web site Tuesday.
The three licenses obtained by the in-vitro fertilization firm permits them to use embryos created using Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) techniques and clinically unusable human eggs.
The SCNT technique, which involves placing a skin cell in place of the nucleus of an unfertilized egg, was used to clone Dolly the sheep. The technique could technically also be used to clone humans - a highly-charged moral and ethics issue that has been firmly opposed by many Christians.
The NHMRC, however, noted on its announcement that the license only permits Sydney IVF to use the SCNT technique to create cloned embryos in order to derive embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes and not for reproductive cloning, which is illegal in Australia.
Dr. John Findlay, chair of the Council's licensing committee, told Reuters this week that Sydney IVF's research would be closely monitored.
"They have been given a license to do therapeutic cloning," said Findlay. "They can go to the stage called blastocyst. They must stop at that point."
Although the IVF firm received permission to attempt the task of creating cloned embryonic stem cells from humans, it does not necessarily mean that will succeed.
For years, scientists from different parts of the world have tried and failed. Earlier this year, a Californian company produced three cloned human embryos from 23 eggs, but was not able to extract stem cells from them.
In 2004, the scientific community thought South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk succeeded in creating stem cells from cloned human embryos. The following year, his team announced they succeeded in producing stem cells tailored to specific patients. His research was published in a scientific journal and make worldwide headlines but was discovered in late 2005 to be faked. The disgraced scientist now runs a pet-cloning clinic.
Pro-life groups, who consider harvesting tantamount to destroying human life, say the application of the cloning technique in humans would undermine the sanctity of human life. Many also oppose the use such research because it requires the use of a significant number of women's eggs.
The license allows for 7,200 of these eggs to be used over three years, the scientist leading the project at Sydney IVF told the Herald. The scientist claimed that "only eggs that were unusable for IVF because they were immature or had not been fertilized properly, and which donors had given consent for, would be used," the paper reported.
Meanwhile, some Christians still consider therapeutic cloning objectionable and say adult stem cell research holds more promise. Among them includes Dr. Dónal P. O'Mathúna, a bioethics professor and member of the Christian Medical Association, who has argued in past commentaries that since therapeutic cloning applies SCNT to human cells, the process is still human cloning.