Harvard researchers said yesterday they have asked the university's ethics boards for permission to create cloned human embryos for medical research, marking the first push to conduct such experiments at a U.S. academic institution since a failed attempt in 2001.
The goal of the ethically contentious, privately financed work -- which has already gained provisional approval from one Harvard committee -- is to develop new cures for diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other ailments. The approach involves creating cloned human embryos that would be destroyed within days in order to retrieve stem cells growing within.
Library of Life: Interactive graphic shows the makeup of human genes. (Flash Required)
Several lines of evidence suggest stem cells from cloned embryos have greater potential as medical treatments than stem cells derived from unused embryos at fertility clinics, which are created by in vitro fertilization and are now the major source of stem cells for research.
Opponents, however, say it is wrong to create human embryos solely for the purpose of destroying them. Some also fear that the work could speed the arrival of the first cloned baby -- an outcome that virtually all parties to the debate expressly oppose.
The only previous reported effort to produce stem cells from human cloned embryos at an American university was approved at the University of California at San Francisco but ended in failure. The Harvard move comes at a politically precarious time, as stem cell research has emerged as a potent wedge issue among voters in the razor-close presidential election.
President Bush has encouraged Congress to pass legislation banning all human embryo cloning, and the House has repeatedly voted to do so. The Senate has remained split on the issue.
Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry has said he supports research on cloned embryos with proper federal and institutional oversight.
The United Nations, too, is embroiled in the issue. On Oct. 21, it will renew a twice-stymied effort to gain consensus on whether there should be an international ban on creating cloned embryos and cloned babies, or only babies. Some countries have already said they would not abide by a broader ban.
And next month, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative that would provide millions of dollars for stem cell research, potentially including work involving human embryo clones.
The Harvard application highlights an evolving migration of U.S. human embryonic stem cell research from the federal research arena into the far less-regulated private sector as scientists grow frustrated by restrictions on government funding.