We can't turn our back on research, stem cell forum hears

By Tanya Hollis
Wednesday, 27 March, 2002

Next week's meeting of Australian governments should reopen the debate over therapeutic cloning of human embryos, top stem cell scientists said last night.

A parliamentary committee into human cloning and stem cell research last year lent its support to a three-year moratorium on the technique.

But at a forum hosted by industry organisation AusBiotech, leading scientists insisted latest research had shown the technology was necessary to progress.

Deputy director of the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development, Prof Alan Trounson, reiterated to an audience of people working in the field that he absolutely supported therapeutic cloning.

"There should be no moratorium on therapeutic cloning for the delivery of the benefits of ES cell and gene therapy," Trounson said. "We can't turn our back on it."

Trounson said his stance was cemented by a recent paper in the US journal Cell, which reported that a scientist had cloned an embryo using cells taken from an immunocompromised mouse.

The Boston researcher extracted the ES cells, engineered out the genetic mutation causing the animal's illness, and then injected them as blood cells back into the rodent's tailbone.

The technique had enabled him to cure the mouse, which had previously had to live in a bubble because of its immune state.

Trounson said the result showed the importance of the technique and argued that therapeutic cloning should be considered at Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting next week.

It was a position supported by other speakers including Stem Cell Science's Dr Peter Mountford, BresaGen's Dr John Smeaton and ES Cell International's Dr Robert Klupacs, as well as bioethicist Prof Julian Savulescu of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.

"A big issue facing Australia is to see if we have the nerve to allow therapeutic cloning," Mountford said.

He said that while he understood and respected the emotion that surrounded any research involving human embryos, he did not support a moratorium and said Australia should look to the United Kingdom for an example of the path to follow.

Smeaton said that BresaGen had hedged its bets against the possibility that the moratorium would remain in place by examining other options such as fusion.

But he said he supported the position of other companies and scientists that therapeutic cloning was needed.

According to Klupacs, any regulatory change that inhibited genuine ethical research would force skilled Australian scientists offshore.

He appealed to governments to consider the economic ramifications of their legislation.

On the ethics side of the debate, Savulescu said it made no sense to ban therapeutic cloning, adding that while he had no personal objection to reproductive cloning, it did not have to be the inevitable outcome of the technology.

"We're not on a slippery slope, we're on a set of steps and we can stop," he said. "We can have legislation to ban reproductive cloning but allow therapeutic cloning."

The forum came as media reports suggested the use of spare IVF embryos for research was set to get the nod from the Howard government, reversing earlier Cabinet opposition.

AusBiotech president Dr Peter Riddles said that despite the reports, the indication from the corridors of power remained that the decision-making process was far from over.

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