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China has announced its official support of research using cloned human embryos where such research is aimed at curing disease, rather than creating new human beings.

However, the Chinese government has stressed that any such research in China must be “rational” and “closely monitored”. It has also urged the rapid approval of legislation on human cloning so that “cloning technology can be developed healthily and used safely”.

China’s official support for what is widely referred to as ‘therapeutic cloning’ was announced in Beijing last week at the same time as the government declared its opposition to ‘reproductive cloning’.

The announcement was made partly in response to the disclosure on 25 November that US researchers at the company Advanced Cell Technology have created the first cloned human embryo.

In making their announcement, the US researchers emphasised that their goal is not to make a cloned baby, but to harvest stem cells from the cloned embryos that, they hope, will eventually help to cure life-threatening diseases.

Nevertheless a number of anti-abortion groups, particularly in the United States and Europe, are trying to prevent all forms of research on cloned embryos, arguing that whatever precautions are taken, permitting such research would inevitably open the door to the cloning of complete individuals.

Whether or not ‘therapeutic cloning’ should be allowed is already a key focal point in debates over efforts at the United Nations to draw up a global ban on human cloning (see UN treaty may outlaw 'reproductive' cloning).

China’s decision to approve therapeutic cloning “is excellent news,” says Anne McLaren, of the Wellcome CRC Institute in Cambridge, a member of the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. “It is a very sensible decision, and puts China in a similar situation as the United Kingdom and some European countries.”

The Chinese support for therapeutic cloning has been echoed in Europe, when on 29 November the European Parliament rejected a report calling for a complete ban on public funding of all experiments using human embryos (the situation that currently exists in the United States).

Richard Gardner, chairman of the Royal Society working group on therapeutic cloning, says that the society agrees with the prevailing view that that all countries should prohibit human cloning.

But he adds that the use of cell nuclear replacement to produce embryonic stem cells — the technique sometimes called therapeutic cloning — is a potentially important area of research, particularly with regard to circumventing the problem of rejection of cell or tissue grafts.

“Both for this reason and for its value in understanding how gene expression can be re-programmed to enable one type of cell to be converted into another, therapeutic cloning could help research into exciting new stem cell treatments for a range of degenerative diseases and serious injuries."

A report in the People’s Daily on 30 November quotes Kang Le, director of the Chinese Academy of Science’s Bureau of Life Science and Biotechnology, as saying that “we need to develop cloning technology, but we have to be very careful and make sure that scientific exploration is carried out under strict experimental conditions and laws.”

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