Australia Urged to End Ban on Embryonic Stem Cell Cloning

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - A three-year-old ban in Australia on the cloning of human embryos for their stem cells should be lifted, a major report prepared for the government has recommended.

It said the government should permit, under license, human "somatic cell nuclear transfer" (SCNT) -- a scientific term for the manufacturing in a lab of an early-stage human being, whose stem cells are then removed for research.

A review panel chaired by former Federal Court Judge John Lockhart released its 250 plus-page report Monday after a six-month inquiry into legislation passed in 2002.

More than a thousand written submissions were received, and 109 people made submissions in person across the country to the panel of six experts in law, ethics, science, medicine and philosophy.

The 2002 laws permitted scientists to harvest stem cells from embryos that had been created during in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment prior to April of that year, and were no longer needed. (Earlier this year, the government agreed that researchers could also experiment on "leftover" IVF embryos created post-April 2002 date.)

But the manufacturing of cloned embryos for the same purpose was outlawed in 2002, as was any attempt to clone an embryo with the intention of allowing it to develop in a womb and be born.

Some researchers have dubbed these practices, respectively, "therapeutic cloning" and "reproductive cloning." The "therapeutic" label is intended to show that the stem cells obtained from the cloned embryo may someday be used to treat diseases and injuries.

Opponents prefer the term "destructive cloning," given that the embryo is destroyed in the process of delivering the stem cells.

SCNT involves the transfer of a somatic cell into a donated human egg, the nucleus of which had been removed. The fertilized egg develops into an early-stage embryo, whose genetic makeup is identical to that of the patient who donated the somatic cell, and is therefore a "clone" of that patient.

The Lockhart inquiry report said SCNT should be allowed, but that the cloned embryos should not be allowed to develop beyond 14 days old, or be implanted into a woman's womb.

Australia has been named the Asia-Pacific region's leader in biotech, and the world's number six.

As countries like Britain, South Korea and Singapore have allowed cloning for stem cells, pressure from Australia's scientific community to liberalize laws has been considerable.

In the state of Victoria, where much of the biotech industry is based, state treasurer John Brumby has been arguing that the country's restraints on the research could lead to its best scientists moving abroad.

But opposition to changing the laws, from prolifers and others, has also been strong.

Executive officer of the Sydney Catholic archdiocese's Life Office, Dr. Brigid Vout, said from Sydney Monday the Lockhart report would be closely examined in the days ahead, but the church was very disappointed about the cloning recommendation.

"So-called 'therapeutic cloning,' by somatic cell nuclear transfer or other means, involves the manufacturing of human embryos solely for the purpose of using and destroying them in research," she said.

"This is a grave offense against human life and dignity. Human life is not a commodity."

The Sydney archdiocese has funded research into "adult" stem cells, cells obtained from sources other than embryos, such as bone marrow and placentas.

Dozens of conditions are already being treated with these adult cells, whereas embryonic cells' potential, while believed to be considerable, remains unrealized.

One of the recipients of church funding was Prof. Alan Mackay-Sim of Australia's Griffith University, whose research focuses on adult stem cells originating from the lining of the nose, and currently being used to treat paraplegics.

Earlier, Mackay-Sims was reported as telling a hearing of the Lockhart inquiry that the adult stem cell field was making cloning for embryonic stem cells "redundant and impractical."

On Friday, Sydney Catholic Cardinal George Pell announced a second grant, of 100,000 Australian dollars ($74,600), to a Melbourne team researching the use of adult stem cells in improving the regeneration of the skin, following injuries resulting from fired, bomb blasts or accidents.

"The success and continuing promise of Australian work on adult cells ... casts doubt on the persistent claim that without relaxation of the restrictions on embryonic research and cloning, our best scientists will leave the country," Pell said.

"Adult stem cell research is advanced, safe, productive and morally incontestable -- a strong contrast with its embryonic stem cell counterpart."

Prime Minister John Howard's government, which is divided over the issue, will consider the recommendations of the Lockhart inquiry over the Christmas break.

See related story:
Embryonic Cloning 'Embedded in Lies' says Ethicist (Dec. 19, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow