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British Cloning Research on Hold

The British government has ignored the advice of two scientific panels and refused to permit research on embryos aimed at finding treatments for damaged tissue and degenerative diseases. Instead, it announced yesterday that a new expert committee, to be chaired by the government's chief medical adviser, Liam Donaldson, will further examine the benefits and safety of cloning research and report early next year.

"I'm very disappointed," says Martin Bobrow, professor of medical genetics at the University of Cambridge and a member of one of the earlier panels. "I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that this government's attitude to expert advice is to bat recommendations it does not like to more experts until it gets the answer it wants." The government's caution is widely perceived as a reaction to a furious backlash from the public against genetically modified foods and crops, and public suspicion of experts and government in the wake of the crisis over BSE, or "mad cow disease."

Last January--in the wake of public concern over the Roslin Institute's cloning of Dolly the sheep--a government advisory body called the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (which gives permission for research projects) decided to seek public and scientific comment about the ethics of cloning and how the science might develop. These panels jointly collected public comment and published a report in December (Science, 18 December 1998, p. 2167). The report suggested legislation be introduced to ban cloning for reproduction, but that research on embryos up to 14 days should go ahead because of the "enormous" medical benefits.

But yesterday health minister Tessa Jowell told the House of Commons that "more evidence is required" of the need for research on cloned human embryos and of its potential risks and benefits. But Bobrow says he has seen no specifics about what further information is needed. And Simon Best, managing director of Geron Bio-Med, a joint venture of a spin-off of the Roslin Institute and Geron Corp., adds, "To form another group sends the wrong message. ... It sets up a platform to reopen all the issues that have already been discussed."