By Simon Caldwell
HUMAN cloning for so-called therapeutic purposes could be made redundant by a new form of stem cell research being pioneered by a British firm, it emerged this week.
Edinburgh-based PPL Therapeutics, the company that helped to clone Dolly the sheep, is about to undertake an experiment that could render the scientific imperative for destructive research on human clones obsolete.
The firm is believed to be way ahead in developing dedifferentiation, a process which involves the biochemical rewinding of adult cells from any part of the body back to a state similar to that of a seven-day embryo.
The technique, if successful, will harvest all the potential benefits of human cloning — such as replacement tissues that the body will not reject and cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases — but will not require the creation and destruction of human clones at any stage.
PPL has achieved successful results using skin cells from a cow and now chief scientist Dr Alan Colman, wants to try human cells. "It would help us to avoid the destruction of human embryos for medical research," he said.
Any breakthrough is certain to lead to pressure on the Labour Government to fall into line with world opinion and reverse its controversial move to allow human cloning in Britain earlier this year.
The technique is being kept secret for commercial reasons since a number of biotech firms are lining up to patent technologies which can be converted into medical cures for sale. Advanced Cell Technology Inc. of the United States has already bought a patent in de-differentiation.
Wisconsin-based Infigen Inc. has declared similar results to PPL and Dublinbased TriStemGroup has claimed it could turn cells from a human blood sample into their embryonic counterparts in just six hours.
Scientists working on adult stem cells — which, like dedifferentiation, does not involve cloning — are also said to be making progress. "We are already so advanced on the adult stem side that there is just no necessity to look at embryonic cells," said David Prentice, Professor of Life Science at Indiana State University in an interview with The Financial
The new developments were welcomed as "exciting" by Neil Scolding, the Professor of Clinical Neuroscience whose views were dismissed during a Parliamentary debate on cloning because he was a Catholic convert.
"I think it is very promising," said Prof Scolding. "If there are a lot of companies rushing into it, it shows there is something there. It points to another pathway in which exciting new technologies can be developed without abortion or embryonically-derived stem cells. It shows how important it is
to pursue these other methods."
He added: "If we hold the embryos in any respect at all then it is hard to justify embryonic research when there are just as valid and real alternatives."
Lord Alton of Liverpool, who campaigned against cloning, said: "The tide is beginning to turn as people are seeing that what we argued all along was true."
Last week, America's House of Representatives voted for a total ban on human cloning, a ban on all medicines derived from the process and a prison sentence of up to 10 years for those who broke the law. The Democrat-controlled Senate and President George W Bush have both yet to decide the issue, but it is likely that they will follow suit.
"We must advance the promise and cause of science but do so in a way that honours and respects life," said President Bush, who last month discussed the issue with Pope John Paul II.
The British Government permitted research on human cloning by pushing changes through the Houses of Parliament last December and January via an unamendable statutory instrument, ignoring four separate pleas from the nation's religious leaders for a select committee to be established to fully scrutinise and debate the implications. A House of Lords select committee was established only after the vote and is currently taking evidence from representatives of the biotech industry.
Research on human clones, however, has been delayed because the ProLife Alliance Was granted permission for a judicial review over the way the Government changed the law. Spokesman Bruno Quintavalle said: "Once we have won our judicial review at the end of October there is going to be an awful lot of pressure on the Government to reform the legislation.
"It is not only America which is banning cloning, it is banned across the Council of Europe and all the nations which signed the protocol against human cloning have already outlawed it. The UK is really isolated on this issue and it is about time for us to change the law. We are courting the opprobrium of the rest of the world."
As The Catholic Herald went to press, Italian Professor Severino Antinori was about to address the American National Academy of Science over his plans for the reproductive cloning of 200 couples, including eight from Britain.