COVER STORY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Embryonic Research - Is government money funding private profit?
, June 1, 2002
In a speech in the Senate, the leader of the National Party in the Senate, Senator Ron Boswell, has raised the question as to whether public moneys, made available for stem cell research, might generate private profits.
He said, "Imagine debating a bill that could make a select group millionaires but not identifying who those people might be or ascertaining whether it is just that they should so profit. Imagine if the potential millionaires were the primary source of information on the issue and no-one knew of their vested interest. We must not let the promise of miracles blind us to our duties as legislators to scrutinise, to check and to know as much as possible about the stakeholders in this issue."Unclear relationship
Senator Boswell asked, "What is the relationship between embryo research companies and the state governments? Who owns the intellectual copyrights or patents? What are the values of the outcomes of this research to pharmaceutical companies?"
He added, "All we have been told so far is that embryo research is about some struggling, noble scientists who want to help sick people, yet it is so much more than that. We cannot be naive; we have to be well informed.
"I have searched public records, which I hope will lead others to take an interest in the activities and financial characteristics of companies involved in embryo research.
"The market structure of embryo cell research and its funding are an intricate maze of domestic and overseas private, charity and public organisations. It would be a daunting task to regulate embryo research if there were no clear picture of who is doing what with whose money.
"The South Australian Government recently announced that they will provide finance for a new $8.9 million facility for biotech company BresaGen in Adelaide. But that is not broken down either.
"Other state governments have also poured millions into biotechnology, especially Victoria and Queensland, which are in a race to snatch overseas investment."
Senator Boswell quoted a science writer, Allon Lee, who recently reported that "both BresaGen and the Monash group are forging links with overseas consortiums. In August, ES Cell International announced that a consortium of Australian and Singapore investors would provide $17 million to Monash to develop its ES cell research. BresaGen also moved to expand its base by acquiring US-based biotechnology company, CytoGenesis."
Addressing the Senate, the National Party's Senate leader added, "Australia is a world leader in embryonic cell research. There are two main groups: BresaGen based in South Australia and ES Cell International, which is a partnership between ES Cell Australia and a Singapore venture capital company.
"The ES Cell companies are based in Melbourne and are the backers of the notable Alan Trounson, the chief spokesperson advocating embryonic cell research in Australia, and, naturally, a director of ES Cell Australia.
"Both these companies have qualified for big injections of funds from the US National Institute of Health. These grants will enable the increase of embryonic cell production for distribution around the world. The process of commercialisation will be greatly enhanced by these grants."
Senator Boswell added, "We must now open our eyes to the real nature of what is going on. There is big money at stake and we must know who is who in the zoo. Professor Trounson calls one of his other commercial ventures Copyrat Pty Ltd - something to do with rats and cloning. ASIC records show it has 40 million ordinary shares and 20 million preference shares. Another of his companies is called, IngenKO. The 'KO' refers to mice with genes that have been knocked out for certain characteristics. 'Ingen', the first part of the company name, is the same as the company used in the fictional blockbuster Jurassic Park,
where they bred dinosaurs from DNA.
"Strangely, there is another island off the southern coast of west Java, in Indonesia, called Tinjil Island. It has won awards for its orang-utang conservation program. The other side of its activities, however, involves the farming of macaque monkeys for research. The Bogor Agricultural University in Indonesia runs a primate program in association with international interests. A Washington-Indonesian group is working with the US naval medical research unit in Jakarta on primate genomics. The man who runs the Bogor primate program on Tinjil is Dr Dondin Sajuthi. He is a director of a company called Maccine Pty Ltd.
"Their web site describes Maccine Pty Ltd as 'A recent spin-off from Monash University, one of Australia's leading medical research institutions. It is headquartered in Melbourne, Australia, (the hub of medical research and biotechnology in Australia) and it also operates facilities in Indonesia. Leveraging its origin at Monash, Maccine is also marrying state-of-the-art embryology and nuclear transfer cloning techniques with its CRO function to develop and supply the best possible models for its clients.
"'Our unique collaboration with the Bogor Agricultural University primate research facility is aimed at improving knowledge regarding the preservation of primates and the use and the development of medicines to treat human diseases.Monkeys for sale
"'Consultants from Monash will bring their world-leading embryology technologies to Maccine's international R&D program so we can produce genetically identical macaque monkeys. These genetically identical animals will be used in our contract research activities and made available for direct supply to research institutions'."
Senator Boswell continued, "It is not hard to conjure up a picture in your mind of a remote jungle island where men in white coats clone monkeys for military research. It sounds like a movie - and yet it is real. Professor Trounson is a shareholder and a director in the identical monkey company, Maccine Pty Ltd. He also sits on Maccine's scientific advisory panel."
Senator Boswell concluded, "The members of this Senate are called on to be legislative pioneers in biotechnology. It is crucial that we are as informed as possible. We are moving in the current of history. The Senate's duty, as always, is not to be dragged along with it or overthrown by it, but to control and direct it toward the salvation, not the shipwreck, of our citizens."