EMBRYOS: by Richard EganNews Weekly
Cloning - a licence to kill
, May 8, 2004
On Friday, April 16, 2004 the National Health and Medical Research Council's Embryo Research Licensing Committee issued its first five licences under the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002. One of the licences went to Melbourne IVF and the remaining four to Sydney IVF, both of these being private companies in business primarily offering IVF services.
The licences authorise the use in the five research projects of a total of 860 human embryos with provision made for thawing up to 1060 human embryos from frozen storage to allow for losses of life during the thawing process.
The human embryos must be considered "excess ART [i.e. artificial reproductive technology] embryos" and consent for their use in research must be obtained from the couple for whom the human embryo was created and any other persons (and their spouse if any) from whose gametes the human embryo was formed.Stockpile
It appears that Sydney IVF and Melbourne IVF will be using human embryos from their own stockpiles and seeking consent from their own patients.
This raises important issues of conflict of interest and informed consent free from coercion. It is well known that IVF patients undergo extreme stress and may also develop an emotional dependency on their IVF doctors.
These IVF clinics will be asking patients to determine that human embryos held for them in frozen storage are no longer wanted for treatment.
How can the clinics' commercial interest in obtaining consent to the use of these embryos be separated from their clinical obligation to advise their patients on the likely success of further IVF treatment and their options for dealing with excess human embryos?
A statement by Sydney IVF's Dr Robert Jansen, that patients having themselves benefited from earlier research are willing to donate their excess human embryos for research, gives a clear indication of the pitch likely to be made to potential donors of human embryos to Sydney IVF's commercially-oriented research programme.
Despite the focus during public and parliamentary debate on the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002 being on the use of human embryos as a source for human embryonic stem cells, only one of the five licences relates to stem cells.
Of the other four licences, two authorise research into new genetic and chromosomal screening of human embryos. 375 human embryos may be used in these two research projects. The aim of the research will be to identify more readily genetic and chromosomal abnormalities in IVF embryos so that such human embryos can be discarded.
The issuing of these licences suggests that the Licensing Committee is persuaded that finding new methods to identify and target for discarding human embryos with unwanted genetic disabilities counts as a "significant advance in knowledge or improvement in technologies for treatment".
The other two licences aim to improve IVF success rates by experimenting with the culture media and other conditions in which human embryos are grown in vitro.
The granting of these licences exposes the shallowness of the rationale, adopted by Prime Minister John Howard and others, that research involving human embryos was acceptable because, to paraphrase, they are going to die anyway and we may as well get some benefit from their deaths.Encouraging growth
For these projects, the human embryos must be thawed and then placed in a culture medium with the precise intention of encouraging the human embryo to continue living, growing and developing.
Then when the experiment is concluded - or the 14-day limit allowed under the Federal law for cultivating a human embryo is reached - the human embryo will be destroyed.
The research benefit is not to be obtained from the inevitable death of the unwanted human embryo but from its deliberate cultivation and orientation towards life and growth.
The one licence dealing with the isolation of human embryonic stem cells from human embryos authorises the use of 50 human embryos to obtain stem cell lines. Sydney IVF is required to report progress on establishing embryonic stem cell lines to the Licensing Committee when 25 of the 50 human embryos have been used.
Given the average rate of success at obtaining stem cell lines, Sydney IVF could only reasonably expect to derive a few such lines from 50 human embryos.
The licence for this project states that the human embryonic stem cells will be used "in research into diagnosis and eventually for the treatment of human diseases such as juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's Disease".
It is unclear what is meant by "research into diagnosis". Nor is it clear how a new line of human embryonic stem cells could possibly be necessary for this purpose.Disturbing statement
The statement that the human embryonic stem cells derived from these human embryos will be used "eventually for the treatment of human diseases" is very disturbing.
It suggests that Sydney IVF has alluded to the usual exaggerated claims about the therapeutic potential of human embryonic stem cells but has not provided any detailed or concrete protocols for this purported use.
Apparently Dr Bernard Tuch at the Diabetes Transplant Unit at the Prince of Wales Hospital expects to get access to these stem cell lines for his research. Dr Tuch has been using cells from aborted babies for his research.
The Licensing Committee is reportedly considering a further twelve applications for licences, including two from Monash IVF. One of these deals with extraction of human embryonic stem cells while the other seeks authority to use human embryos for training embryologists.
The licences have been delayed while Monash IVF responds to requests for more information from the Licensing Committee. It is not clear how the use of human embryos for training purposes could be said to result in "a significant advance in knowledge or improvement in technologies for treatment".
The Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002 is subject to a three-year review scheduled to begin as soon as possible after December 19, 2004 and to conclude with a report to be tabled in Parliament by December 19, 2005.
It looks as if opponents of human embryo research will have plenty of questions to ask about the licensing scheme.