Australian Gov't Criticized For Stem Cell Research Funding

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Australia's conservative government was under fire Friday for a decision to fund a new stem-cell research center, before the country's parliament debates how far such work should be allowed to go.

The Catholic Church has slammed Prime Minister John Howard, who just two months ago was understood to favor a ban on research using human embryos. Those embryos are destroyed in the process of providing stem cells.

Proponents say stem cells from embryos may one day help treat those suffering from a wide range of diseases. Pro-lifers point to stem cells from other sources, such as placentas and bone marrow, as an ethical alternative.

Howard Thursday announced the allocation of 43.5 million Australian dollars ($24.6 million) to the Melbourne-based Centre for Stem Cells and Tissue Repair.

A key part of its research would be into the "potential application of both adult and embryonic stem cells in the treatment of diabetes, vascular, bone and nerve damage, kidney disease and diseases of the blood and the skin."

The potential of stem-cell research was "quite literally unlimited," Howard said, and he stressed that the government would ensure scientific breakthroughs were "guided by the community's ethical considerations."

Critics' concerns were not allayed by the mention of both adult and embryonic cells or the reference to "ethical considerations." They pointed out that the center will be run by leading scientist Prof. Alan Trounson, a strong supporter of research using embryos.

Trounson and other Melbourne scientists have long been at the forefront of global bio-research, including in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and cloning technologies, and they and their supporters had argued that Australia could be left behind in the worldwide stem cell research drive.

Howard praised Australia's researchers, saying there was no reason why they should not become as famous around the world as the country's movie and sports stars.

His announcement was welcomed by several organizations representing people suffering from various disorders, whom they hope may one day be successfully treated with stem cell therapies.

Until early April, Howard was believed to be leaning toward a federal ban on research using embryos "left over" from IVF, and endured weeks of intense lobbying from those on both sides of the debate.

Then shortly before he was to meet with the premiers of Australia's states to discuss the issue -- some of the premiers are ardent advocates of embryonic stem cell research -- Howard said the work could go ahead, but only on embryos already created during in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment.

Parental permission would be required, and the process would be subject to legislative review every three years, he stipulated.

That decision was to be followed by the introduction of legislation in parliament, scheduled for June. Recognizing the sensitivity of the issue, Howard committed his coalition government to allowing lawmakers a conscience vote, as has the main opposition Labor Party.

Cart before the horse?

Critics Friday expressed surprise that he had approved the funding before lawmakers had the chance to debate and vote on the weighty and highly-controversial issue.

Dr. Warwick Neville, a research officer with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said in an interview commerce was clearly the motivation for the decision.

Howard had not only pre-empted the parliamentary debate, but also announced the funding at a time the country's leading medical research agency was still looking into the ethics of the matter.

"The dollars are in place and the commercial prospects have been given precedence over ethics at a time the National Health and Medical Research Council is currently holding private inquiries into draft legislation that is going to regulate this [research]."

It was "putting the cart before the horse" to provide funding before the ethical issues had been sorted out, Neville said.

By contrast, President Bush had put moratoriums in place and set up advisory panels to look into the ethics first, leaving"questions of funding much further down the track."

Neville said the church was concerned that Howard was "throwing a lot of money" into an institution to be run by a scientist who is on the record as being completely in support of destructive embryonic research.

And this was happening at a time embryonic research could not boast any accomplishments, despite claims that it could "cure everything from bigotry to baldness."

Research using "adult" stem cells, on the other hand, had already scored many successes, he said. That would have been a better destination for the funding.

Neville said the government had "crossed a line" by making one category of human life available for destructive research.

"How will you stop other categories of human life from being similarly used? No-one has satisfactorily answered that," he said, adding: "If we don't ask those sorts of questions, no-one else is going to."

It's in human nature always to test the limits of regulation, Neville said. "Once you go down this road, there is no way of stopping it."

A spokeswoman for Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council confirmed Friday that it was currently holding consultation with the scientific community and health professionals with the view to drafting legislation on stem cell research.

Last month the Catholic Church in Australia's largest city, Sydney, offered to contribute 50,000 Australian dollars ($26,500) to adult stem cell research, if the federal and state governments would also provide "significant" funding for the same purpose.

Sydney Archdiocese spokeswoman Marita Franklin said Friday there had not yet been any government offer to match the church funding, and Howard's latest announcement was "obviously not the same thing we've been talking about."

Among the most recent advances in adult stem cell research has been work done in California to treat a patient with Parkinson's disease by using adult neural stem cells from his own brain, and in Atlanta to treat Parkinson's patients using retinal cells from deceased donors.

See also:
Australian Catholic Church To Fund Adult Stem Cell Research (Apr. 10, 2002)
Decision On Stem Cell Research A Wrenching One For One Australian Dad (Apr. 5, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow