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Australian review of stem cell laws

5 September 2005
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 324

In Australia, a public consultation on two pieces of federal legislation which govern cloning and embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research is due to end this week. The two Acts, passed in 2002, together ban reproductive cloning, prevent scientists from cloning embryos to obtain stem cells and restrict them to research on surplus IVF embryos conceived before the acts were passed. The six-member Legislative Review Committee is chaired by John Lockhart, a former Federal Court judge, and is due to deliver its findings to the Federal Parliament by 19 December 2005.

After the public consultation closes on 9 September, the Review Committee will begin to look in more detail at developments in reproductive technology, and medical and scientific research since 2002. Among the things it will consider is a proposal for a national stem cell bank. The committee is already hearing evidence in Australia's major cities and will continue to do so through September and October, before compiling its report and recommendations.

Last week it was reported that of more than 200 submissions to the public consultation, only two were from scientific groups. The Australian Academy of Science (AAS) and the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMRA) have both responded: both are in favour of ES cell research using embryos left-over from fertility treatments and donated for research purposes. In addition, their submissions call for the 2002 Act to be amended to allow therapeutic cloning of embryos for research into disease and debilitating injury. John Lockhart confirmed that the majority of submissions had come from individuals or small Christian groups who see ethical problems with embryo and ES cell research. Professor Bob Williamson, a medical geneticist from Melbourne University and co-author of the AAS submission to the public consultation, said that ethical issues were not raised until someone tried reproductive cloning. 'As long as the cells stay in the Petri dish in the laboratory, they are no ethical risk', he said.

More recently, Professor Martin Pera, a leading Australian ES cell scientist, has said that he would consider leaving the country if the current restrictions are not lifted. His ability to work in Australia 'would be compromised relative to my colleagues around the world', he said. Meanwhile, in evidence presented to the Review Committee at the beginning of September, Professor Peter Rathjen, from Adelaide University's faculty of science, said that stem cell research will 'change the face of science in coming years'. He added that the current laws limit advancement and potential for a multi-million dollar stem cell industry in Australia.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Australia 'needs stem cell bank'
The Melbourne Age |  1 September 2005
Cloning ban may force top scientist out
ABC News |  5 September 2005
Embryo opponents make voices heard
The Australian |  29 August 2005
Laws 'hamper' stem-cell research
The Australian |  2 September 2005
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