Stockholm, Jan 29-- The government of Sweden, a world leader in stem-cell research, is in favor of cloning early-stage human embryos for therapeutic purposes and is preparing to change legislation to allow the practice, two ministers said Tuesday.

In an article contributed to Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, Social Affairs Minister Lars Engqvist and Education and Research Minister Thomas Oestros said they approved creating new lines of stem cells for medical research. "We have a positive view of somatic nuclear cell transfers on condition that they are done in ethically acceptable forms," they wrote.

Therapeutic cloning and stem-cell research are the two most exciting yet controversial issues in medical biotechnology. Stem-cell research entails harvesting embryos at the earliest stage of their development, when a small cluster of cells has the apparent ability to develop into any organ of the body. The dream is to be able to coax these cells into "growing" into replacement organs for people who are born with a severe handicap or who, for instance, are crippled in an accident.

In order to ease the risk that the organ could be rejected as alien tissue, the idea is to clone an embryo so that it is a genetic duplicate of the person who will receive it. Known as therapeutic cloning, this entails removing the nucleus of a donated egg and then "reprogramming" it with a tiny piece of genetic material from the recipient. The cloned embryo would not be allowed to develop into a baby, a scenario widely considered abhorrent.

The two ministers said however that a 1991 law on research and treatment involving fertilized eggs needed "clarification," as somatic nuclear cell transfers do not involve fertilization. "It is important that we have legislation that is open to developments in research but at the same time makes clear that it is forbidden to create humans through cloning," they said.

In December, the Swedish Research Council announced it was in favour of cloning early-stage human embryos for therapeutic purposes, arguing the practice was "ethically defensible" given "the prospect of major long-term advances in treating diseases." Sweden is currently the world leader in stem cell research, with the largest number of stored stem cells in the world, according to Swedish Research Council chief Bengt Westerberg.

Gothenburg University, in its collaboration with the Sahlgrenska Hospital, has 19 stem cell lines, the most in the world, while the Karolinska Institute and Huddinge Hospital in Stockholm hold six. There are a total of 70 stem cell lines in the world.

Therapeutic cloning has prompted questions worldwide about the profound ethical consequences of what it would mean to produce a cloned human being. President George W. Bush declared last year that the US government would fund embryonic stem cell research only on existing stem cell lines, and has described somatic nuclear cell transfers as "morally wrong."

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