November 30th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Free Trade: what's in it for us?

EDITORIAL: Let East Timorese refugees stay

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Medicare a 'sleeper' issue for Liberals, Labor

HUMAN CLONING: Research Involving Embryos Bill stalls in the Senate

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Pub with no beer / Sheep in sheep's clothing

AGRICULTURE: US free trade deal: will it help sugar farmers?

MEDIA: Bali "interrogation" photo sends wrong message

REFLECTION: Clyde Cameron on Archbishop Mannix and Bob Santamaria

LETTERS: Ted Serong (letter)

EDUCATION: Schooling SA-style: an exercise in planned mediocrity

EDUCATION: Dumbing down: the saga continues

ASIA: How many missiles are needed to make one China?

COMMENT: British media's royal flush

BOOKS: Rule Britannia: The Victorian and Edwardian Navy

BOOKS: Rethinking Peter Singer

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Research Involving Embryos Bill stalls in the Senate

by Richard Egan

News Weekly, November 30, 2002
The Senate spent four days from November 11-14 debating the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 and the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002.

The cloning bill passed unanimously securing a comprehensive ban on human cloning in Australia. The prohibition on cloning applies regardless of whether cloning is carried out with the intention of producing a live born child or with the aim of producing cloned human embryos for use in research or possible therapies.

There was extended debate on several proposed amendments designed to strengthen the bill. One of these proposed banning the importation of stem cells or other products derived from human embryo clones manufactured overseas.

After initial resistance from the Government, including some suggestion that Australia may wish to benefit from the products of overseas cloning, the Prime Minister agreed to amend customs regulations by introducing a 12 month ban on importing stem cells or other viable products of human cloning with the ban to stay in place longer unless revoked.

The whole Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 is subject to a review to commence two years after the Act is assented to, with a report to be handed to the Council of Australian Governments within three years. A successful amendment moved by Independent Senator, Shayne Murphy, ensured that the report will be tabled in both Houses of Parliament as well as given to COAG.

Almost two-thirds of Senators (49 out of 76) gave second reading speeches on the more controversial Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. The Bill passed the second reading vote 43-26, comfortably but still closer than the 99-33 vote in the House of Representatives.

It was clear from the speeches that several Senators had still not understood what the Bill actually permits.

For example Senator Meg Lees said:

"It does not propose experimentation on human embryos per se. It involves the isolation and removal of stem cells from embryonic clusters of undifferentiated cells which were created by medical researchers in laboratories and are about to be destroyed or, as the previous speaker said, be basically disposed of, regardless of their potential.

"The experimentation and treatments are then centred on the stem cells themselves, not on the embryo or the clump of cells from which they came.

"I think it is an important distinction to note in the debate. Opponents of the research would draw us a picture of medical researchers actually taking viable human beings - or, as some of the emotive letters have said, 'little people' - and experimenting on them."

This is simply not true. The Bill, in fact, does not even mention stem cells. The license provisions deal with "using" live human embryos for any project which the Licensing Committee accepts may lead to a "significant advance in knowledge, or improvement in technologies for treatment".

In his second reading speech, Senator Boswell explained how evidence before the Community Affairs Legislation Committee from expert scientists had confirmed that the real breakthroughs in stem cell therapies were using adult stem cells from the patient's own body.

The problems with embryonic stem cells, especially immune rejection, were immense and possibly insurmountable. Furthermore, there are already sufficient embryonic stem cell lines in Australia to continue research in this area.

Senator Boswell went on to detail the somewhat incestuous relationships between key companies involved in embryo research and the granting bodies allocating massive public funds to these companies.

"I believe there is sufficient evidence to warrant the investigation of a number of recent grants. Peter Jonson is the chair of the expert panel that awarded $46.5 million to Trounson's National Stem Cell Centre. He also awarded $5.5 million of a major national research facility grant to Trounson's other cell centre. BresaGen is a commercial partner of both these grants. Jonson later set up a business with the Stem Cell Centre's chief operating officer - Trounson's self-styled secret weapon in getting the large grant. This business is a joint venture with a Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) grant of some $17.4 million.

"The chairman of the CRC funding panel is Geoffrey Vaughan, a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Monash. Vaughan is also a director of BresaGen, which stands to benefit considerably from the Stem Cell Centre grants award by Jonson. Jonson is a former Chairman of ANZ Funds Management. ANZ has approximately 2.6 million shares in BresaGen. Vaughan has presided over the funding decision of the $17 million dairy CRC, of which Trounson is a director. There have also been two CRC grants totalling $29.9 million to groups associated with Bob Moses, who is the Chairman of the National Stem Cell Centre.

"Vaughan was also appointed to the industry R&D [Research and Development] board that subsequently gave Vaughan's own company, BresaGen, a grant of $4.9 million to find a stem cell therapy cure for Parkinson's.

"Expert evidence to the committee from a Parkinson's Australia representative showed that the wide nature of the disorder meant that embryo stem cells would never be able to cure Parkinson's. Certainly BresaGen has yet to show any significant public health outcomes for all the millions that we have given them.

"BresaGen has received $476,000 from the ARC, while Trounson's outfits have received several grants totalling over $644,000. In addition, they both benefit from the $46.5 million centre of excellence grant, yet to be provided, jointly with Biotechnology Australia. One Australian Research Council (ARC) grant of $364,000 went to Trounson's Copyrat company to fund rat cloning strategies. The grant summary states that 'the development of this technology will bring considerable benefits to the areas of physiological research and drug design'. We seem to be spending a lot of money helping drug companies and cloning.

"The NHMRC [National Health and Medical Research Council] has been a great supporter of Trounson over many years, particularly via the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development. The NHMRC chair is a member of the Institute's management board that received $4.26 million in an NHMC partnership grant to work on embryo cells from Singapore. The intellectual property from the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development has been assigned to the majority foreign owned ESL Cell International.

"Another member of the [Monash Institute's] management advisory board is Charles Curwen, who was responsible for the fundraising campaign that brought in a major donor in HIH through Ray Williams who received an honorary doctorate of law from Monash. Williams was an advisory board member of the Monash Institute. Curwen was similarly honoured with a Monash honorary doctorate. He is also a director and shareholder of Maccine Pty Ltd, Trounson's monkey-cloning company.

"While millions of dollars are being spent funding the commercial goals of some well-connected investor scientists, what has happened to grant proposals with genuine public health outcomes that have missed out year after year?"

Senator Boswell also highlighted the use of embryonic stem cells for pharmaceutical testing as the most likely source of real profits from the harvesting of human embryos by the multinational embryo research companies such as ESCI and BresaGen by citing from the grant application of Trounson's National Stem Cell Centre: "The Centre will be developing pure populations of cells from its internal and external R&D activities and plans to be primarily a supplier to screening companies on a non-exclusive basis for drug screening of selected cell types on a fee for service or a licence basis."

This is confirmed in a media release dated 18 November 2002 from BresaGen.

While announcing an intellectual property deal with US-based company Plurion involving patents for isolating pluripotent stem cells and differentiating them into specific cell types, BresaGen CEO and President Dr John Smeaton explained that this "has created the opportunity for broad licensing to other commercial entities across a wide range of stem cell products.

He added that the company is actively pursuing these opportunities with several major pharmaceutical companies and expects to finalise agreements in the near future."

Dr David Van Gend, speaking for the national medical committee of Do No Harm, revealed that his committee has written to major pharmaceutical companies seeking a guarantee that any future drugs tested on human embryos or on human embryonic stem cell lines will be prominently labelled to enable those citizens who have a conscientious objection to using these medicines to avoid them.

Amendments prohibiting the use of human embryos in drugs and cosmetics testing and requiring labelling of drugs tested on human embryonic stem cell lines are among the over 40 amendments proposed by individual senators including Senators Harradine, Barnett, Boswell, Bishop, Collins, Hogg, Murphy and Nettle.

Stricter regulation

All of these amendments are designed to tighten the Bill so that it at least delivers something of the so-called "strict regulatory regime" COAG and the Prime Minister claim the Bill puts in place.

As debate on the amendments commenced on November 14 before being adjourned until December 2, it was apparent that the Prime Minister's instructions to Senator Kay Patterson, the Minister for Health who is handling the Bill, were to refuse any amendments on the grounds that COAG has agreed to the Bill as it stands.

However, only the Senate is now able to subject the Bill to the detailed scrutiny a matter of this importance requires. If the Government continues to obstruct even the most well-reasoned amendments, then debate on the Bill - allocated just 4-5 hours when the Senate resumes on December 2 - is likely to overflow the remaining eight sitting days before the Summer recess.

It is time for the Prime Minister to admit that he has been conned by Professor Trounson, pressured by Labor Premiers and naïve in his support for embryo research in the promise of cures. If he won't drop the Bill he should at least allow the Senate to remedy its worst defects.

  • Richard Egan

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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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