Harvard researchers want to be the first in the United States to produce cloned human embryos for disease research.
A team of researchers has asked a university ethics review board for permission to conduct research using embryonic stem cells, a contentious field of medicine that has become a presidential campaign issue.
Scientists think these early, all-purpose cells can be coaxed to form nerves and specialized tissues to repair a host of illnesses, including Alzheimer's disease.
"We don't want to see the United States left behind," said Charles Jennings, executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
Two groups of researchers associated with the newly created institute are seeking approval from the university's ethics board. If approved by the university and other boards representing groups that would donate human tissue, the scientists could become the first in the United States to clone human cells for disease research.
The research proposed at Harvard involves a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, which is also referred to as "therapeutic cloning." Only a South Korean team of scientists has successfully performed nuclear transfer with human cells.
Jennings said the research would be tightly controlled and would not attempt to clone humans. "We are absolutely opposed to reproductive cloning," he said.
Harvesting stem cells from an embryo kills the embryo, which opponents of the research say is tantamount to taking a life.
"This research creates human life in the lab solely to destroy them," said Richard Doerflinger, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes the research. "It reduces procreation to a manufacturing process for making human guinea pigs for research."
President Bush signed an executive order in 2001 limiting federal research money to embryonic stem-cell lines then in existence, to ensure government does not support future production of embryos for research purposes.
Sen. John Kerry, Bush's Democratic challenger, says he would reverse the restrictions and put money into the research, ensuring unspecified ethical standards are followed through "good will and good sense." Aides say Kerry would finance research in which scientists studied leftover embryos created for infertility treatment.
There are no controls on private embryonic stem-cell research, such as that proposed by the research groups at Harvard.
One group, headed by Harvard biologist Douglas Melton, has formally sought permission, with the goal of studying juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. A group based at Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital has not yet applied.
"We are doing this because, while respectful of the ethical disagreements, we believe it is very important to pursue this to ultimately cure these tragic illnesses," said Harvard provost Dr. Steven Hyman. "This is a university that wants to play a lead role."
It could take many months before the various institutional review boards reach agreement on the research. Hyman said the question is not whether the research will be approved or rejected, but more likely whether the boards can agree on research limitations.