Mumbai: The Australian government has issued the world's first licence to clone a human embryo, allowing scientists at in-vitro fertilisation firm Sydney IVF to create cloned human embryos to extract embryonic stem cells.
Sydney IVF said it would use only eggs that are unusable for IVF and which donors had given consent for in the research, adding, three different types of cells - embryonic stem cells, cumulus cells attached to the collected eggs and skin cells – would be used to produce the cloned embryos.
The IVF firm claims to have a unique combination of skills, technology and access to 7,200 human eggs for its research. Sydney IVF also claims to be the first, in 2004, to extract stem cells from Australian IVF embryos. It has since extracted and grown 10 more colonies of embryonic stem cells this way, the firm said.
Researchers at the fertility company said the licence would help them gain unprecedented insights into the crippling conditions like muscular dystrophy and Huntington's disease and develop ways to treat them.
If the firm is successful it would be a world first to clone a human embryo, the Australian government's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which granted the licence, said.
While scientists in other countries have made stem cells similar to embryonic cells, none have so far used cloned human embryos to extract embryonic stem cells.
Australia lifted the ban on using human embryos for research in December 2006 after a vote in parliament. But the use of excess IVF embryos and the creation and use of other embryos in research is restricted by law nationwide.
While human cloning for reproductive purposes is still banned, researchers ''can go to the stage called blastocyst. They must stop at that point.'' The blastocyst is a very early-stage embryo not yet implanted into the womb.
The researchers plan to use the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique, in which DNA from the nucleus of an unfertilised egg is removed and replaced with the nucleus of an adult cell such as a skin cell.
The technique can be used to create cloned embryos in order to derive embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes, but can also be used for reproductive cloning.
Scientists said they would try to create stem cells from patients who have abnormalities or create stem cell lines which will be compatible with patients which have given the cells.
The extracted stem cells would initially be used to test new drugs to fight diseases such as muscular dystrophy and Huntington's disease, and later therapeutic cloning would be used to produce body tissue matched to patients.
Sydney IVF was the first, in 2004, to extract stem cells from Australian IVF embryos, and had since extracted and grown 10 more colonies of embryonic stem cells this way.
The director of Australians for Ethical Stem Cell Research, David van Gend, criticised the decision to issue the licence, saying cloning research was no longer necessary because of recent advances in stem cell science.
The NHMRC said it would closely monitor Sydney IVF's research.