The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority yesterday granted its first licence for therapeutic cloning of human cells, three years after the UK became the first country in the world to permit the regulation of the technique.

The HFEA was set up in August 1991 as part of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. The HFEA's principal tasks are to license and monitor clinics that carry out in vitro fertilisation, donor insemination and human embryo research. The HFEA also regulates the storage of gametes (eggs and sperm) and embryos.

The one-year licence, which has been granted to the Newcastle Centre for Life, permits the Centre to create human embryonic stem cells using cell nuclear replacement.

This involves removing the nucleus of a human egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus from a human body cell, such as a skin cell. The egg is then artificially stimulated. This causes the egg to divide and behave in a similar way to a standard embryo fertilised by sperm.

Stem cells - which can grow into any other of the 300 different types of cell found in the human body – will then be extracted from the minute embryo. It is hoped that these will eventually be used to treat such diseases as diabetes and Alzheimer's.

The cloned embryos will not allowed to develop for longer than 14 days – after which time the nervous system will begin to form – and the stem cells created under the licence will be used only for research purposes.

Suzi Leather, Chair of the HFEA explained:

"In the UK, research on human embryos is only permitted for certain purposes. The purpose of this research is to increase knowledge about the development of embryos and enable this knowledge to be applied in developing treatments for serious disease. This research is preliminary, it is not aimed at specific illnesses, but is the foundation for further development in the treatment of serious disease."

Speaking to Nature.com, reproductive biologist Alison Murdoch from the Newcastle Fertility Centre for Life said, "We're absolutely thrilled".

"The potential that this area of research offers is immensely exciting and we are keen to take the work we've done so far to the next level," she added.

But pro-life groups were outraged.

Cloning involves the manufacture of a new kind of human being ... with the express purpose of destroying it once its stem cells are removed," Professor Jack Scarisbrick, chairman of the group Life, told Reuters. "It is the manipulation, exploitation and trivialisation of human life of a most frightening kind".