October 22nd 2005

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: JI's blood-stained prints on the Bali bombings

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Howard's biggest gamble since the GST

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Public outcry against human cloning

NEW ZEALAND ELECTION: How Helen Clark snatched victory

CLIMATE: Don't get steamed up over Arctic melting

ISLAM: Why Indian Muslims reject extremism

SCIENCE AND RELIGION: The rise and rise of Intelligent Design

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Too many crooks spoil the broth / Turkey's EU membership and some masterful wedge politics by Austria / Cultural revolution / Look back in anger / Marriage of science with home economics / The decoy ducks

SCHOOL FUNDING: Giving parents greater choice

DRUGS: New cannabis strategy urgently needed

MEDIA: Media authority blasts Ten's 'Big Brother Uncut'

OVERSEAS TRADE: Australia trading at a loss - myth and reality

ENERGY: US Pushes for energy self-reliance

Media cover-up of Saddam's WMDs (letter)

Rural Australians betrayed (letter)

Embryo vs. adult stem-cell research (letter)


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Public outcry against human cloning

by Richard Egan

News Weekly, October 22, 2005
Human cloning should be totally prohibited, according to an overwhelming majority of submissions to a Federal Government review of cloning and embryo experimentation laws, reports Richard Egan.

Submissions to the Lockhart Committee, which has been appointed to review the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act 2002 and the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002, officially closed on September 9. However, extensions have been granted to some groups to finalise their submissions. Over 850 had been received by the end of September and the first 400 of these published on the committee's special website at www.lockhartreview.com.au

An analysis of these 400 submissions shows 344 (83 per cent) are against any relaxation of the total prohibition on human cloning contained in the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act 2002. (Many of these submissions also call for the amendment of the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002 to remove any provisions allowing the licensing of destructive research on human embryos.)

Arguments against cloning

The arguments against human cloning most commonly cited in the submissions include:

  • It is wrong to create human life in order to destroy it in research.

  • The human embryo is "one of us".

  • We all started life as a human embryo.

  • The United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning, which Australia has signed, opposes all human cloning.

  • Claims for therapies from human cloning are exaggerated.

  • Adult stem cells have a proven track record in treating 65 conditions while embryonic stem cells have not been used to treat a single condition.

Only a minority of these submissions (62, or 18 per cent) make any reference to religious reasons for opposing cloning. Of the remaining 56 submissions, 22 are confidential, four are unclear or support the status quo, and only 30 (7.5 per cent) call for a change to the law to permit cloning for therapies or research.

Some of these submissions are from individuals with conditions such as juvenile diabetes, or from organisations representing persons with particular conditions who still seem to be clinging to the hyped-up promises of imminent cures from embryonic stem-cell research.

More informed submissions in favour of allowing human cloning concede that any therapies are "at least 10 years away" and that the real use of human cloning is to derive embryonic stem-cell lines with particular diseases in order to do basic research on the development of the disease or to use the stem cells for high throughput drug testing.

Not one of the submissions published so far explains why embryonic stem cells derived from human clones are necessary for these purposes.

This is a glaring omission in light of the significant submission from Prof. Alan Mackay-Sim, deputy director of the Eskitis Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies at Griffith University.

He states that "developments in adult stem-cell biology ... alter the context of the debate by providing serious alternatives to embryonic stem cells for cell transplantation, for investigation of disease, and for drug discovery and validation".

Claims made during the 2002 debate that "adult stem cells would be of limited utility compared to embryonic stem cells because they were of limited developmental potential ... can no longer be sustained in the face of considerable scientific evidence to the contrary".

Furthermore, "the lack of use of embryonic stem cells in clinical trials illustrates the continuing problems associated with embryonic stem cells including immune rejection and uncontrolled growth".

Prof. Mackay-Sim's institute has "isolated an adult stem cell from the organ of the sense of smell in the human nose". His team have "been able to induce these adult stem cells to become liver cells, heart cells, muscle cells, kidney cells, blood cells, fat cells and numerous other cell types indicative of a very broad developmental potential".

They are "exploring the utility of these cells in animal models of diseases and injury, including spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease and motor neurone disease".

Clinical trial

In a separate development, the institute is "currently undertaking a Phase I clinical trial taking cells from the nose of the patient, growing them in the lab, and transplanting them into the injured spinal cord of human paraplegics".

The institute's lab has "over 40 adult stem-cell lines derived from persons with schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease, motor neurone disease, and mitochondrial disease".

It says: "These are relatively easily obtained, easy to grow in the lab in large numbers and amenable to cell culture studies, gene expression profiling and proteomics analyses [i.e., the identification of proteins in the body and the determination of their role in physiological and pathophysiological functions]. It is probable that such cell lines as these will render therapeutic cloning irrelevant and impractical."

Mackay-Sim points out that "therapeutic cloning is a long and laborious process that will require donor oocytes [eggs] and will produce an inexact copy of the donor because of the handful of mitochondrial genes passed on through the donor egg".

It is quite extraordinary in the light of these remarkable breakthroughs with adult stem cells that politicians such as Victorian Premier Steve Bracks and Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane can claim that the existing prohibition on human cloning is somehow retarding Australia's contribution to medical science.

The Lockhart Committee concludes its series of consultations in the capital cities in Darwin on October 31. It must then finalise its report for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and the Federal Parliament by December 19, 2005.

Only then will we know whether the committee members - some of whom have made prior statements in favour of human cloning for research - will ignore both the weight of principled and reasoned opposition from ordinary Australians and the significance of the developments in adult stem-cell biology enunciated by Prof. Mackay-Sim.

If the committee does recommend any relaxation of the ban on human cloning, then this will emerge as the major social issue confronting John Howard in 2006.

His comments in 2002 indicated that he saw a sharp ethical divide between (a) allowing research on so-called "excess" human embryos originally created in order to achieve a pregnancy but now destined to "die anyway" and (b) cloning for research which would involve creating human life with the intention of destroying it.

Mr Howard may need the strong encouragement of the thousands of ordinary Australians who share his instinctive rejection of human cloning to ensure that he resists the pressure for change from members of Cabinet such as Mr Macfarlane and premiers such as Steve Bracks.

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