A British university has asked the country's reproductive science regulator for permission to clone human embryos for stem cells that could produce new treatments for incurable diseases.
The British Fertilization and Embryology Authority is considering the license application from Newcastle University to clone human embryos for scientific research.
The scientists hope their experiment could lead to the creation of insulin-producing cells for diabetics who must now inject insulin, but they say it could be several years before the study is completed.
The research is not intended to produce a cloned human baby, but rather embryonic stem cells that can divide into any tissue in the body. The stems cells would be extracted when the embryos are only a few days old.
The proposed experiment has touched off a debate in Britain about the ethics of human cloning research.
Oxford University ethics professor John Savulescu told British television those who block such research cause deaths that could be prevented.
"There is a vast shortage of organs for transplantation and problems of rejection and this kind of research may be the first step to alleviating that very significant problem," he said. "To unnecessarily frustrate it is to be responsible for the people who die who could have been saved."
An opponent of the research, Josephine Quintavalle of Britain's Pro-Life Party, says scientists should exhaust other lines of investigation before experimenting with cloned human embryos.
"Look to adult stem cells, which are actually providing cures already," she said. "And until we run out of routes along the adult stem cell line of research and therapy, we have no legal right or authority to go near the human embryo."
Another expert in the field is Arlene Judith Klotzco, a London Science Museum specialist in bio-ethics and author of a book on the subject titled "A Clone of Your Own."
She says that, while Britain has strict laws against scientists attempting to make duplicate human babies, other countries are more lenient.
"In Britain, the regulatory situation is actually very, very good," she noted. "None of these projects can proceed without a license and if a clinic would do something without a license, without going through the approval process, there would be criminal sanctions. In countries that are unregulated, I think there is more of a risk of the techniques being used instead of for therapeutic cloning, for reproductive cloning."
Ms. Klotzco predicts the British regulator will approve the Newcastle University project. A spokesman for the authority says a decision is not expected before next week.