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Harvard funds human cloning

The world’s richest university has put its clout behind medical research opposed by President Bush

AMERICA’S richest university threw its reputation and financial resources behind efforts to clone human embryos for medical science yesterday.

Scientists at Harvard University were awarded ethical approval and private funds to pursue therapeutic cloning experiments, which are strongly opposed by the Bush Administration and the Religious Right. Researchers hope that they could lead to cures for conditions such as diabetes and motor neuron disease.

The Harvard team will seek to clone embryos using cells from patients with these disorders, and then to create “disease-specific” colonies of embryonic stem cells that can be used to develop new treatments.

The work is hugely contentious in the US, where experiments on embryonic stem cells created since 2001 cannot receive federal funding and attempts to outlaw the use of cloning for medical research have narrowly failed to pass in Congress.

The Bush Administration has campaigned in the UN for a global ban on all forms of human cloning, whether for reproductive purposes or developing therapies.

It is also one of the first therapeutic cloning projects to be started since the disgrace of Woo Suk Hwang, the South Korean scientist found last year to have faked his data.

While another research team at the University of California, San Francisco, announced last month that it was attempting to clone human embryos in this fashion, the approval at Harvard is particularly significant because of the university’s vast reputation and wealth.

The university, which has an endowment of $27 billion (£14 billion), which makes it the richest in the world, took more than two years to vet the ethical and scientific credentials of the project before deciding to give it its support. The project is the first of its kind in the US that will be conducted without commercial backing.

Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, said: “While we respect the beliefs of those who oppose this research, we are equally sincere in our belief that the life-and-death medical needs of suffering children and adults justify moving forward with this research.”

The research will be led by the scientists Douglas Melton, Thomas Dudley, Kevin Eggan and George Daley and will focus on diabetes, motor neuron disease and blood disorders.

The initial goal is to take nuclei from adult cells belonging to patients with these diseases, and to transplant them into eggs from which DNA has been removed.

Were these to divide to form clones, they would be genetically identical to the patients, and carry mutations linked to the conditions.

The cloned embryos would then be used to create embryonic stem cells, which could be grown into specialised adult cells that mimic the diseases in question.

In the longer term the aim is to develop cloned embryonic stem cells for transplant as “spare-part tissue” that would be genetically matched to patients.

“We plan to take skin cells from a patient with a genetic disease and reprogram that skin cell back to its embryonic state,” Dr Daley said.

Source Timesonline.co.uk