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British health chief OKs wider embryo research

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LONDON — The British government's chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, recommended Wednesday that British scientists be allowed to clone human embryos for use in a wider variety of medical research.

In 1990 parliament approved embryo research for five main reasons mainly involving treating infertility and avoiding genetic disorders in children.

But Wednesday, Donaldson called for the scope of permissible research to be widened.

Donaldson, the top doctor in Britain's Department of Health, affirmed his support for an expansion of "therapeutic cloning" research.

Therapeutic cloning draws criticism because it relies on research on embryonic stem cells—undifferentiated cells which develop into all the different tissues of the body—and in effect creates human beings and then kills them.

The advantage of cloning, which uses embryonic cells to form new tissues identical to the patient's own tissues, is that it removes the risk of rejection of transplants and grafts.

"UK scientists are world leaders in this field and today's announcement could herald treatments for Parkinson's disease and for spinal cord injuries and heart disease," the BioIndustry Association said, while welcoming Donaldson's proposals.

Donaldson said research using embryos "to increase understanding about human disease and disorders and their cell based treatments should be permitted" because of the "great potential to relieve suffering and treat disease."

Prime Minister Tony Blair will leave it to members of parliament to decide in a free vote whether scientists should be allowed to clone human embryo cells for a broader spectrum of research, the Department of Health said.

"The government response to the report accepts all the report's recommendations. The government intends to make this a free vote," it said in a statement.

The opposition Conservatives' health spokesman Liam Fox voiced his objections to using embryo cells in cloning research.

Many scientists, including the British Medical Association and fertility expert Lord Winston, were delighted by Donaldson's report. It promises them the chance to compete on a more level playing field with colleagues abroad who are less strictly controlled. But other groups were less impressed.

"Therapeutic cloning is totally unacceptable because you create human beings and then you destroy them, you effectively cannibalize them," Professor Jack Scarisbrick, the chairman of the charity Life, told Reuters.

Critics would like to see more work done to follow up on research showing that adult stem cells, instead of embryonic ones, could be used to develop tissues and organs.

Donaldson called for research into alternative sources of stem cells and said experiments on embryos would only be permitted if the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority was satisfied there were no other options.

The progress of stem cell research should also be monitored by an "appropriate body," Donaldson's 150-page report added.

He advocated maintaining restrictions on "reproductive cloning" which seeks to create genetically identical individuals in the same way that scientists created Dolly the sheep in 1997 by manipulating adult cells.

"So-called 'reproductive cloning' should remain a criminal offence," Donaldson said, adding that the mixing of adult human cells with live animal eggs was also banned.