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SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Australian government has issued its first license allowing scientists to create cloned human embryos to try and obtain embryonic stem cells.
The in vitro-fertilization firm Sydney IVF was granted the license and reportedly has access to 7,200 human eggs for its research.
If the firm is successful it would be a world first, the Australian government's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which granted the license, said on Wednesday.
Scientists in other countries have made stem cells they believe are similar to embryonic cells using a variety of techniques, but none have been able to extract embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos.
An Australian ban on the research, known as therapeutic cloning or somatic cell nuclear transfer, was lifted in December 2006 after a rare conscience vote in the national parliament.
But the use of excess IVF embryos and the creation and use of other embryos in research is restricted by law through national legislation. Human cloning for reproductive purposes is banned.
Chair of the NHMRC's licensing committee, Dr John Findlay, said Sydney IVF's research would be closely monitored.
"They have been given a license to do therapeutic cloning," Findlay told Reuters, adding the scientists are not licensed to reach the fetal stage.
"They can go to the stage called blastocyst. They must stop at that point," he said. The blastocyst is a very early-stage embryo not yet implanted into the womb.
Findlay said scientists will try and create stem cells from patients who have abnormalities or create stem cell lines which will be compatible with patients which have given the cells.
Initially, any stem cells extracted would 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.
The director of Australians for Ethical Stem Cell Research, David van Gend, criticized the issuing of the license, saying new technology meant cloning was no longer necessary.
"We have regulations in Australia such that the abuses of cloning wouldn't happen here, we will not get live birth cloning," he told local radio.
"We won't get cloning right through to the fetal stage in order to use them for organ transplants, but if we teach the world how to clone you can be quite sure it will be used in less rigorous jurisdictions."
Somatic cell nuclear transfer is a technique in which DNA from the nucleus of an unfertilized 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.
There are several types of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells, made from days-old embryos, are considered the most powerful because they can give rise to all the cell types in the body.
Sydney IVF said only eggs that were unusable for IVF because they were immature or had not been fertilized properly, and which donors had given consent for, would be used in the research.
The firm said it will use three different types of cells, embryonic stem cells, cumulus cells attached to the collected eggs, and skin cells, to produce the cloned embryos.
Sydney IVF was the first, in 2004, to extract stem cells from Australian IVF embryos, and has since extracted and grown 10 more colonies of embryonic stem cells this way.
Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani