BY SIMON CALDWELL
A COMPLAINT to the BBC against a programme bias in favour of human cloning has been upheld by the organisation itself.
Catholic peer Lord Alton of Liverpool wrote in protest at some of the "misleading" claims that were made in How to Build a Human: Creation.
The programme, screened on BBC TWO on January 13, wrongly attributed medical advances in the field of adult stem cell research to those using embryonic stem cells, which involve the creation and destruction of human clones.
Last week, Fraser Steel, head of programme complaints at the BBC, wrote to Lord Alton to say that he agreed with at least five of his points, and would be publishing "a note of action taken" as a result of the findings in the next issue of the in-house magazine, Programme Complaints.
The bulk of Lord Alton's complaint focused on the case of Dr Judson Somerville, a man who was paralysed after his spinal chord had been severed.
After receiving an injection of adult stem cells, Judson was able to show "an astonishing degree of limb movement".
However, the programme claimed that to "fix his spine Judson needs human stem cells". It said: "Judson needs stem cells cloned from his own body." However, Mr Steel in his letter admitted that on the basis of existing evidence he did not think anyone was in a position to be certain of such a claim.
"I think there should have been more in the programme to qualify the impression it gave of the prospects for `therapeutic' cloning," he said. "I am therefore upholding your complaint to that extent."
Lord Alton said the response had raised his opinion of the BBC, an organisation which has often demonstrated a strong bias in favour of the controversial technology.
He said: "Sometimes I am sceptical about committees doing internal audit but in this case, although the watchdog and the offender might live under the same roof they are clearly not part of a cosy relationship.
"This does inspire confidence in the BBC complaints system and should encourage others to use the system."
Mr Steel was also sympathetic to Lord Alton's complaint that the programme should have included some of the hazards of human cloning.
"As the programme gave a great deal of attention to the possible benefits of `therapeutic' cloning, I agree that it should have made some reference to its possible danger," he said in his letter.
"I was surprised to find, for example, that one recent study found untreatable tumours in 20 per cent of animals to whom embryonic stem cells had been administered.
"That particular study was published too recently for the programme to take account of it. But I note that the June 2001 update from the Royal Society, which has consistently taken a positive view of the prospects for embryonic stem cell research, emphasises the point that unexpected adverse reactions to stem cell transfer, such as tumour formation or loss of cell function and control, might affect the potential for therapeutic applications.
"If the programme had included information of that kind, I think viewers would have been given a more balanced impression."
Mr Steel's letter came in the same week that a research team in the United States published a landmark paper in Nature magazine, supporting adult stem cells against those derived from human embryos.
The team from the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute said adult stem cells taken from bone marrow held out greater potential for the discovery of new treatments because they were easily able to change into brain, heart, muscle or other types of cells without side effects.
Peter Garrett, the research director of LIFE, said the breakthrough rendered human cloning as "unnecessary as it is unethical".