Australia debates therapeutic cloning

Scientists urge the government to act on recommendations to allow somatic cell nuclear transfer

By | May 3, 2006

The Australian government has come under pressure this week to respond to proposals that national laws should be amended to allow somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) for research purposes. The changes, recommended late last year by a government-commissioned independent review, would permit therapeutic cloning under strict controls. But scientists fear the government will ignore the advice and decide to keep the current ban. Those fears were intensified on Tuesday when the federal health minister, Tony Abbott, announced that the government would provide AUD$22 million ($16.7 million) to help establish a new national stem cell research center that would focus only on adult cells. "To do good science one should not be picking adult stem cell research over embryonic stem cell research," Elizabeth Finkel, an Australian embryologist turned author, said in a statement. "It is disturbing to think taxpayers' money is being allocated based on the personal ideology of some of our politicians." Historically, Australia has been a major player in the stem cell field, particularly in the area of embryonic stem cell research. Six of the stem cell lines included in the NIH human embryonic stem cell registry, for example, were generated by a spin-off from Melbourne's Monash University. Meanwhile, the government's Cabinet of senior ministers is yet to set a date for discussion of the proposals on altering SCNT regulations. A spokeswoman for health minister Abbott told The Scientist that a timetable has not yet been established for the debate, although other political insiders suggested it could take place within days. The original legislation was passed in 2002 after heated debate, and there is every indication that any discussion of changing the law will generate similar divisions. Treasurer Peter Costello, for example, told reporters at the beginning of April that he would oppose any relaxation of current laws, saying "I don't think we should go around creating embryos for the purposes of testing." On the other hand, Ian MacFarlane, minister for industry, tourism and resources, told local radio this week that he would support the changes. Ultimately, however, if legislative changes are considered, it is likely that federal politicians will be allowed to vote on the issue according to their own conscience, rather than along party lines. Megan Munsie, Scientific Development Manager at Stem Cell Sciences, a private laboratory in Melbourne, said "it would be a blow" if the laws were not changed. It wouldn't preclude advances in the field, she told The Scientist, but would leave Australian researchers lagging behind their overseas colleagues. The current laws mean that "really we're precluded from collaborating with people who are doing this [SCNT] work," she noted. Derek Morgan, professor of health law and biomedical innovation at the Queensland University of Technology, told The Scientist that Australia's politicians also need to consider the long term implications if they ban cell nuclear transfer on ethical grounds. "Suppose Australia turns its back on CNT and the development of embryonic stem cells, and (the) science that proceeds in other countries results in therapeutic opportunities. What would Australia's response be? Will it allow Australians to take advantage of any of the therapies developed?" Stephen Pincock Links within this article S. Pincock, "Aussie panel urges end to cloning ban," The Scientist, December 19, 2005. Legislation review committee: report "Funding for adult stem cell research announced," Office of Tony Abbott, May 2, 2006. Information on Eligibility Criteria for Federal Funding of Research on Human Embryonic Stem Cells "Costello backs conscience vote," The Age, April 4, 2006 "Govt pushed to release human cloning report," ABC News Online, May 3, 2006.

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