A team at Newcastle University had applied to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority for a license to create embryos from which stem cells would be harvested for medical research. The researchers hope eventually to create insulin-producing cells that could be transplanted into diabetic patients.
The stem cells are extracted when the embryo is still microscopic. British regulations allow the embryo to develop for no more than 14 days.
Three years ago, Britain became the first country to authorize the cloning of human embryos when Parliament voted to allow regulators to license the method to scientists investigating the medical promise of stem cells, the master cells of the body.
The South Korean parliament followed in December, and by February scientists there announced the had become the first in the world to successfully and extract stem cells for research.
Many scientists believe stem cells hold vast promise for treating an array of diseases from diabetes to Parkinson's. Stem cells can potentially grow into any type of human tissue and scientists hope to be able to direct the blank cells to grow into specific cell types needed for transplant.
Stem cells can be found in adults, but scientists believe they may not be as versatile as those found in embryos. They envision using cloning to create an embryo cloned from a patient so that stem cells extracted would be a perfect transplant match.
"After careful consideration of all the scientific, ethical, legal and medical aspects of the project, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority License Committee agreed to grant an initial one year research license to the Newcastle Center for Life," the British regulator said in a statement.
"This is an important area of research and a responsible use of technology. The HFEA is there to make sure any research involving human embryos is scrutinized and properly regulated."
Regulations on cloning and stem cell research vary across Europe, and around the world. No other European country licenses the practice.
In Japan, the government's top science council voted last month to adopt policy recommendations that would permit limited cloning of human embryos for stem cell research in Japan.
This year, the United Nations will revisit the issue of whether to propose an international treaty to ban "therapeutic" cloning — which produces stem cells from cloned embryos — as well as "reproductive" cloning, which makes babies.
The United States prohibits any kind of embryo cloning and has lobbied strongly against it, and funding for stem cell research is restricted there.
Some Christian and politically conservative groups oppose stem cell research — especially cloning — as immoral because fertilized embryos must be destroyed to harvest the stem cells.
Stem cell research has become . U.S. policy forbids federal funding for research on embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001.
President George W. Bush's opponent, Sen. John Kerry, has said that if elected he'd overturn those funding restrictions.
By Emma Ross