Posted on Oct 24, 2005, 8 a.m.
By Bill Freeman
SCIENTISTS could create cloned human embryos specifically for stem cells to treat major diseases under a Victorian Government push for relaxed embryo research laws. In an attempt to boost the state's reputation as a world leader in biotechnology, Treasurer John Brumby will tell a national inquiry into cloning and embryo research today that scientists are being hampered by existing laws.
SCIENTISTS could create cloned human embryos specifically for stem cells to treat major diseases under a Victorian Government push for relaxed embryo research laws.
In an attempt to boost the state's reputation as a world leader in biotechnology, Treasurer John Brumby will tell a national inquiry into cloning and embryo research today that scientists are being hampered by existing laws.
And federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has signalled that there is a mood for change in Canberra, warning bluntly that regulatory uncertainty and the emotive debate surrounding the stem cell issue are threatening to torpedo the industry in Australia.
Currently, scientists can use only spare IVF embryos for stem cell research.
Mr Brumby will argue that this should be extended to allow "therapeutic cloning", in which an embryo is cloned from a patient's cell, then destroyed after a few days and its stem cells collected.
Victoria has the backing of other states but will need the full support of the Commonwealth if changes are to be made.
Mr Brumby's call will anger church groups and conservatives, who vigorously oppose the practice.
He will tell the inquiry that therapeutic cloning, also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, holds the promise of treating diseases and helping scientists better understand how diseases work.
"Use of this technique offers the greatest hope for realising the benefits of stem cell research in the short term, particularly in drug discovery and identification of patients that can respond to a particular medicine," he says.
"It could put Australia in the driver's seat for developing the next generation of new medicines. Without (somatic cell nuclear transfer), Australia risks losing its hard-won leading stem cell status."
He stressed there should be strict regulation and safeguards covering the practice.
The laws currently governing embryo research were passed in 2002, but had a three-year sunset clause, with an agreement to review the laws this year.
The review, led by former Federal Court judge John Lockhart, QC, will make recommendations to the Council of Australian Governments by the end of this year.
Mr Macfarlane told The Age the medical benefits of stem cell research could be monumental and this should not be forgotten in the heat of the ethical debate.
"Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to produce a quantum leap in health care for Australians, providing treatments for heart disease, diabetes and Parkinson's disease," he said.
Citing a British study that found that doubts about the future of Australia's embryo research laws were driving biotechnology business away, Mr Macfarlane said: "We've reached a very disturbing point … when other countries are pointing at Australia as an example of how not to encourage the responsible growth and application of research with stem cells."
Victoria has the bulk of stem cell researchers in the country, including the world-leading Australian Stem Cell Centre and the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratory.
But leading Australian biotech companies Stem Cell Sciences and ES Cell International have already transferred some of their operations to other countries that allow therapeutic cloning.
Therapeutic cloning could be used to grow a range of tissue types, including brain, heart and nerve tissue, that are genetically identical to the patient and would therefore not be rejected by the immune system.
It would also help scientists better understand the causes of diseases, particularly cancer, and improve the way life-saving drugs are developed.
Critics of embryo research say "adult" stem cells, from sources such as bone marrow, are equally promising without the ethical difficulties. Embryonic stem cell scientists dispute this.
Sydney Catholic Archbishop George Pell told the Lockhart review therapeutic cloning was even worse ethically than reproductive cloning, which would "at least involve the intention to nurture the life of the human clone".