Stem cell ban would drive us offshore: Bresagen CEO

By Daniella Goldberg
Friday, 01 March, 2002

One of Australia's leading research companies, BresaGen, says it would be forced to move offshore if the use of stem cells for research purposes was banned in Australia.

Federal cabinet met earlier this week (February 25) to decide whether or not to ban the use of spare IVF human embryos for research.

Minister for Ageing Kevin Andrews prepared the submission to Cabinet, which decided to defer the issue for discussion at the Council of Australian Governments meeting on April 5.

But an all-parties parliamentary committee, led by Andrews, last year gave the green light for embryonic stem cell research in Australia - a vital area of research that offers potential cures for serious diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes. Confusion about the government's position has irked researchers. BresaGen CEO Dr John Smeaton made no bones about what the company's position would be if human embryo stem cell research was banned in Australia.

"If there was a ban, we would have no choice but to move to the states," Smeaton said. "Our 20 researchers in Adelaide would join the 20 based in the US.

"If Australia does not want to participate in this emerging (stem cell) industry it is short-sighted."

Smeaton said that in the US, President George W Bush made the big announcements on stem cell research, "but in Australia there are half-baked reports coming out of junior ministers".

"What happened to the new uniform legislation that the Federal government was talking about?" he said. "It would open it up and allow a better situation for us."

Smeaton himself is now based in the US - BresaGen established headquarters in Athens, Georgia, after the South Australian government banned the use of surplus embryos to create stem cell lines.

State governments are currently divided on the regulatory issues for stem cell research. South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia have strict regulations that ban the use of surplus IVF embryos to create human stem cell lines for medical research. NSW, Queensland and Tasmania permit the research, but only NSW is doing it.

The only researcher working with an Australian IVF clinic to create human stem cell lines from surplus IVF embryos is Dr Bernie Tuch, director of the pancreatic transplant unit at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney.

"Ultimately, human pancreatic islets derived from these stem cell lines will be transplanted into a diabetes patient to cure the disease," Tuch said.

"I cannot understand why single individuals are trying to override what was decided by the committee."

Tuch said that if there was a ban on the creation of new stem cell lines, his team would liaise with others doing the research.

Smeaton, who this week was presenting at the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine meeting in Princeton, New Jersey, said there was a new drive to generate embryonic stem cell lines.

"None of the existing stem cell lines that have been approved by President Bush can be used to make human therapeutic products," he said.

All the embryonic stem cell lines have come in contact with mouse cells during their derivation, Smeaton explained.

"The 64 cell lines Bush approved have an Achilles heel - they are xeno-products. They could potentially carry powerful mouse viruses into the human population if they are transplanted into patients.

"If we want to make therapeutic products for clinical trials we will have to create new stem cell lines."

Smeaton claimed that thousands of surplus embryos in IVF clinics were "tipped down the sink" each year, when they could be used instead to create stem cell lines, and later, therapeutic material.

BresaGen's team in the US has shown that the IVF embryos normally discarded by IVF clinics were useful for stem cell research - its researchers derived four of their existing embryonic stem cell lines from such embryos.

"We want to make a bank of up to 200-300 new cell lines," Smeaton said.

As well as replacing the xeno-tainted stem cell lines, the new embryonic stem cell lines could be driven to make cell transplants to overcome neural disease, diabetes and cardiac disease.

"We need to make a sufficient bank of cell lines available, to account for the diversity of the human population," he said.

BresaGen's vice-president of clinical research, Dr Chris Juttner was the first to realise the importance of histocompatibility in stem cell therapy.

"If this therapy is going to work effectively, you must have a degree of histocompatibility matching and this is determined by different racial groups," he said.

"An embryonic stem cell line driven to make heart cells will retain the histocompatibility of its parents. That means Caucasian cell lines are unlikely to be used for Aboriginals.

"It's a pity if we have an opportunity to make a real contribution to science but the government prevents it."

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