By Rachel Sylvester © 2000, Electronic Telegraph 3/3/00

THE cloning of human embryos for medical research, which could allow scientists to create spare parts for the body, is expected to be approved by the Government after an inquiry concluded that the potential benefits outweighed the ethical problems.

A panel of experts led by Dr Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, has agreed to recommend changes to the law to allow the use of cloned embryos to create tissue to treat the sick. Whitehall sources say that ministers are almost certain to end the ban on the "therapeutic cloning" of embryos for research that could eventually cure kidney, liver or heart disease.

Ministers want to launch a public debate to try to persuade people that cloning embryos for research is not the same as creating a carbon copy of a human being. They want to emphasise the difference between the cloning used to create Dolly the sheep and using embryos for tissue engineering. The move will infuriate pro-life campaigners and reignite debate on how far scientists should interfere with nature.

The Roman Catholic Church insists that "harvesting an embryo" can never be acceptable. The Government is already facing a public backlash over trials of genetically modified crops and the use of genetic information by insurance companies. The inquiry has concluded that the potential benefits are so great that it would be foolish to outlaw research at this stage. Scientists believe that they could treat a wide range of diseases if they are allowed to develop the technique.

They would create an embryo clone of a sick person and extract cells genetically identical to the patient's for use in treatment. The aim is to use the cells to grow parts of the body that could be used to replace damaged organs, such as the bone marrow of a child with leukaemia or heart tissue damaged in a heart attack. The panel, which is putting the finishing touches to its recommendations, is concerned that Britain will be left behind in the scientific race if the ban remains.

One member said that maintaining the ban because of public concern about scientific developments would be "throwing the baby out with the bath water". The source added: "The potential is enormous. This could allow us to regrow a heart muscle or bone marrow and that is not a threat to humanity. It is too early to say whether it will work, but if the research is illegal we will never know."

The report, expected to be published next month, will lay down strict rules, specifying the circumstances in which human embryos can be cloned. Sources close to the panel said there was an overwhelming case for using human embryos that were going to be destroyed in any case - for example, extra embryos created for in vitro fertilisation - if research could save human life.

An insider said: "There will be strict rules. We would not want people to do this sort of work for trivial purposes."