Oz scientists on verge of getting human cloning licences

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Melbourne, June 9 : Two separate researcher groups in Australia may be on the verge of obtaining the first licences to clone human embryos.

An nine-member committee set up by the National Health and Medical Research Council met in Canberra on Friday to consider applications from the two groups, the decision on which may be taken as early as this week.

The two groups-one from Monash University and the other from the Australian Stem Cell Centre-are seeking permission to create cloned human embryos using spare eggs left over from fertility treatment.

Their applications are the first submitted since the federal government legislation allowing therapeutic cloning came into a force a year ago.

Just in case the applications are approved, the licences granted will allow only somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), where cloned embryos are created by fusing spare and unfertilised IVF eggs with genetic material like a skin cell from another person.

The cloned embryos would be destroyed once stem cells were collected, and before the embryos reached seven days old.

Tomas Stojanov, the director of Sydney IVF research, is confident that both research groups' applications would be approved.

He also pointed out that his organisation, which had partnered with the two groups, had already achieved success in establishing embryonic stem-cell lines using other methods, and held five NHMRC licences for other techniques.

"We're very experienced in this science,'' the Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying.

He confirmed being contacted by the NHMRC after the licensing committee's meeting in Canberra on Friday.

He also said that stem cells produced by therapeutic cloning could offer good opportunity in drug discovery, and determining mechanisms of disease.

"If we did this, we'd be the first in the world. We're very skilful at this and believe we can be the first,'' he said.

Stojanov insisted that the research would involve only excess human embryos or embryos that were not clinically viable.

Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories director Professor Richard Boyd expressed hope that he and his colleagues could produce the world's first cloned SCNT embryos.

An NHMRC spokeswoman confirmed the licensing committee was considering a number of applications'', but added that it could not be said as yet when a decision would be arrived at.

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