IN producing the most advanced human embryo clones so far, scientists in South Korea have made stem cell therapy seem tantalisingly close to reality.
The potential benefits of stem cell technology are absolutely huge, as these cells can divide into any tissue type in the body.
Theoretically at least, they could be used to treat patients with a wide range of conditions including - to name but a few - Alzheimer’s disease, spinal injuries, diabetes and heart conditions.
When so many patients could be cured of chronic and even degenerative disease, it is easy to see why this controversial technology is being driven forward at such a rapid pace, despite the moral and ethical concerns of experimenting with human embryos.
Professor Woo Suk Hwang and his team at Seoul University have made it clear that their only aim is to produce a therapeutic tool, not to produce cloned human babies.
But some other scientists are not so sensitive to the ethical concerns. Only last month controversial US fertility specialist Dr Panos Zavos claimed he had implanted a cloned embryo into a woman’s womb, although in common with others who have made similar claims, he could not provide any evidence.
It is understandable that such irresponsible claims should cause concern, particularly as scientists warn it would be dangerous to produce a cloned baby, but they should not blind us to the fact that stem cell technology could be used for the common good.
And even if stem cell research were banned in this country, or even the whole of Europe or America, it is clear that other countries will carry on.
At least if we do accept that this research should go ahead, then we can regulate it and it will not be driven underground and left to rogue scientists.
The potential of stem cell research to enrich people’s lives is enormous and cannot be ignored any more than the ethical concerns of cloning humans can be.
But we have to accept the reality of the situation. The genie was almost certainly let out of the bottle the second that it was announced to the world that Dolly the Sheep had been cloned by scientists at the Roslin Institute just outside Edinburgh.
Their groundbreaking research has helped to pave the way for a technology which has the potential to revolutionise medical treatment.
But it is also probably only a matter of time before the first artificially cloned human being is presented to the world.
The moral and ethical questions surrounding the cloning of humans are huge and difficult to answer. But it is becoming increasingly clear that these issues need to be discussed, and sooner rather than later.
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