Big Black Nemesis, Parthenogenesis – the Stem Cell research debate heats up

Prior to the recent media frenzy over the leadership pout between John Howard & Peter Costello, the issue of stem cell research was one that was causing some internal friction within the Liberal Party. While media attention on that issue (and other matters of dissent) faded due to the preference for leadership soap operas, the concerns were still very strong.

Federal Cabinet had decided in June that there will be no further change to the national laws governing stem cell research, despite recommendations for significant change being made by the major public review (known as ‘the Lockhart Review’) held into the issue.

However, the level of concern within the Liberal Party backbench at the Cabinet’s stifling of debate was so strong that Mr Howard has had to “promise his backbench a conscience vote on embryonic stem cell research if legislation comes before Parliament.

Of course, there isn’t any legislation before the Parliament and the government isn’t going to go out of its way to produce any, but it is probable that a Private Senators Bill will be appearing within the next couple of months – similar to the way legislation on RU486 came from non-government Senators earlier this year.

Since the Cabinet decision was announced, both the Queensland and Victorian governments stated that they may press ahead with state specific legislation of their own if the federal government refused to move, which may also have upped the ante somewhat.

Now that a full Parliamentary debate is likely at some stage down the track, what is really needed is an increase in public awareness and debate on the matter. It’s not realistic to expect everyone to read the full report of the Lockhart Review (although it really is worth scanning through it if you have the time), but the more factual information about the matter is put into the public arena, the better the quality of the public and Parliamentary debate will be.

The issue of stem cell research is definitely one that could do with wider public explanation and examination. Most of the media coverage in recent months (and the Cabinet decision too I assume) has been shaped by the views of those in the government, such as Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Santo Santoro, who are approaching the issue from a religious perspective. What little alternative voice there has been from government ranks (most notably backbench MP Dr Mal Washer) has tended to be portrayed as promoting the potential for discovering a cure for major ailments like Parkinsons Disease.

Whilst pinning people’s hopes to the scientific equivalent of miracle cures is not desirable, there is no doubt that there are potential benefits in the research. According to this piece in the New York Times this week, some researchers “no longer see cell therapy as the first goal of the research”, instead seeing embryonic cells as “a research tool to study the mechanisms of disease.”

The Prohibition of Human Cloning Act and the Research Involving Human Embryos Act were passed by the Australian Parliament in December 2002. They established a strict regulatory framework to prohibit certain unacceptable practices including human cloning, and to regulate, through the National Health and Medical Research Council, research involving excess human embryos created through Assisted Reproductive Technology (often known as IVF).

The Parliamentary debate on this legislation was a conscience vote for all parties – although for the Democrats there was basically a common view across all Senators, so the debate was handled much like any other Bill for us. However, all other parties split on the legislation – even the two Green Party Senators at the time voted differently, with Kerry Nettle voting in favour and Bob Brown voting against.

One of the big hurdles in getting public support for further expansion of stem cell research is confusion in terminology. Whilst both the original legislation and the recommendations of the Lockhart Review are strongly against reproductive cloning, the Lockhart Review does recommend legalising a technique for producing embryonic stem cells called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). This technique is also known by the shorthand name of therapeutic cloning, which allows opponents to say that the plan is to legalise cloning.

This article by research scientist Alan Trounson explains the details in a relatively easy to understand way.

In another example of the Australian Executive Government following that of the USA, the stem cell issue was the first time President George W Bush used his veto power to overturn legislation passed by Congress seeking to allow the use of federal funds for expanding research.

Natasha Stott Despoja has done most of the work for the Democrats on this issue over a number of years. I broadly agree with the position she’s taken on this issue in the past, so it’s easiest if I just quote from an article of hers:

I believed there are many sound reasons to encourage research that may alleviate disease; there is intrinsic value in understanding biological processes such as cell differentiation and regeneration, independently of whether it yields direct medical applications; and that a sound, nationally consistent regulatory framework is necessary to provide accountable oversight of research on excess ART embryos that otherwise would be allowed to succumb.

But our legislation is relatively conservative compared with countries such as Britain, Israel, Singapore, Sweden and certain U.S. states which allow SCNT.

As a result, we risk losing top scientists to countries with more progressive stem-cell research laws, if our laws are not updated. Indeed, some have already left.

The Australian Stem Cell Centre recently lost two important stem-cell scientists to the more progressive both in legislation and funding research environment in California.

The Legislative Review Committee, chaired by late former Federal Court judge John Lockhart, QC, wanted to make recommendations that were “consistent with the shared values and take into account the needs, beliefs and concerns of the whole community”.

In addition to permitting SCNT, the panel recommended broadening the definition of human embryo to allow for more research into Assisted Reproductive Technology; greater clarification of consents for donating embryos and eggs; and reaffirming the prohibition of human reproductive cloning. The reports also recommended the establishment of a national stem-cell bank to provide quality control, and give researchers easy access and expert advice on stem-cell lines.

The panel strongly recommended public education on stem cell and ART research.

It is important this does not become a debate favouring one type of stem cell over the other: it is critical that both types are fully investigated.

We must be realistic, but it would be unethical not to invest in potential treatments: to invest in hope and understanding, to invest in the possible.

*parthenogenesis – a form of reproduction, especially in plants, insects, and arthropods, in which a female gamete develops into a new individual without fertilization by a male gamete

(in case you were wondering, the title of this piece comes from the lyrics of a song by Shriekback – it’s not often you get a chance to use the word parthenogenesis, so I thought I’d make the most of it)

UPDATE (17/8):

UPDATE (22/8)

  • A reasoned piece by Fr Frank Brennan arguing that no need has been demonstrated to amend the laws regarding stem cell research agreed to in 2002.
  • More competing views from scientists and various Coalition MPs about the issue. It is interesting that many scientists engaged in adult stem cell research are being quoted opposing embryonic stem cell research, while obvioulsy those involved in the embryo areas tend to support it. It seems to be hard to find disinterested views in this debate.

UPDATES (29/8)

I’ll do a further piece on the stem cell issue once it becomes clearer when and what legislation will appear in the Parliament. In the mean time, I’ll just add on links to this piece from time to time.

There is a piece on Larvatus Prodeo which mentions a few relevant pieces of information, including the slightly bizarre story that “top British footballers are storing stem cells from their newborn babies as a potential future treatment for their own injuries.”

It also notes that the Vatican does not seem overly enthused by the reported new technique of extracting stem cells from an embryo without destroying it. I have to say that while I don’t agree with their position, it is at least logically consistent, as the new technique would still be relying at least in part on surplus embryos produced through IVF. I have always thought that people who oppose embryonic stem cell research should also be proposing to close down IVF, but I rarely hear that suggestion.

The Sydney Morning Herald has a story saying changes to the law to allow therapeutic cloning seem to have majority support, based on a survey of MPs they have done. 124 responses from the 226 members and senators found 52 in favour, 27 against, 22 unsure and 23 no comments. Certainly not a definitive outcome, but a useful lead. I didn’t respond to the survey – mainly because the email went into my quarantine box so i didn’t find it in amongst all the spam until it was too late – but I’d place myself as leaning in favour, but wanting to see the legislation and hear all the arguments before finally deciding.

I think this is an issue with some wider implications where we could benefit from a reasoned debate, and debates are sometimes a bit more useful when people haven’t fully decided their views in advance.

This piece by Deborah Hope in The Australian – Kernels of Sense – is quite balanced and detailed.

Leslie Cannold, a bioethicist from Melbourne, has a piece in today’s Age expressing concern about some of the misleading language being used in the debate.

UPDATE (30/8)

Tony Abbott continues his very aggressive campaign against any changes. He has an opinion piece in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, accusing those politicians – including his Liberal colleagues – who want to allow SCNT of “the monumental backflip of the modern era”, because “in 2002 not one member or senator voted in Parliament to allow any human cloning”.

This piece in Herald covers the responses from some of the MPs specifically targetted by Mr Abbott.

As one of those who voted for the current laws in 2002, I have to say it’s not Mr Abbott’s passion on the issue that offends me, and it is certainly not a problem that his views may be shaped by his religious beliefs. What does offend me is how gratuitously and deliberately misleading and dishonest he is being in the way he promotes his position. It is simply absurd to suggest that it is a “monumental backflip” to support the introduction of laws that go partway down the path of embryonic stem cell research in 2002, and then support changes to go a bit further down that path after a review of how the 2002 legislation is going.

UPDATE (1/9) – Peter Singer has an interesting article on The Bulletin’s website exploring some of the logical difficulties involved in puttnig special significance on the new research reportedly being done in the USA enabling a cell to be taken from an 8 cell embryo without destroying its viability.

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19 Comments

  1. I’m prepared to admire anybody who can work parthenogenesis into a song, a blog or a bit of research.

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  3. red

    I will wait until I see the legislation before I make a final decision, and in the interim I will continue to inform myself as well as I can. I would assume there would be a Senate (or even Joint) Committee Inquiry into the legislation as well, which should help with informing the public as well as politicians.

    However, I will need to be convinced there are good reasons not to support the legalising of SCNT.

    While there are some differences between the two issues, in large part it is a re-run of the general abortion debate – should an embryo be able to be destroyed under any circumstances or not. If you believe that this is OK under some circumstances – and all stem cells derived from embryos now or through SCNT are taken in extremely stages – then it’s hard to see how that blanket objection could stand up just for the stem cell issue.

    All IVF (or Assisted Reproductive Technology) involves the destruction of surplus (early stage) embryos, so unless we move to ban IVF/ART, then it seems incongruous to ban the taking of stem cells from those embryos.

    So to me it really comes down to whether there are other issues or arguments that come into play specifcally in relation to SCNT.

    In my mind, to try to equate SCNT with allowing human clones is just a furphy, so I don’t see that as an argument. (I shouldn’t really draw links with the Shriekback song, as I did in the main post, as some of those lyrics could encourage associations with some of the ‘weird science’ images some people are using to try to create general unease about the whole thing.)

    I did see a piece in The Australian today (link in the Update at the bottom of the main post above) which suggested a risk of women being pressured to donate eggs, which is not as benign a thing as it sounds. I would have thought protections could be put in place to prevent that, but I will look some more into that issue.

    I’m happy to hear any other arguments or concerns people have in regard to the issue.

  4. Given some of the recent comments by Tony Abbott about how adopting the Lockhart Review recommendations will lead to human-animal hybrids, I thought I would put here part of a comment by Bob Williamson, Professor of Medical Genetics at the University of Melbourne, which appeared in the Crikey subscriber email today:

    After six months’ sifting of evidence, the Lockhart Committee unanimously agreed to 54 recommendations – the most important being to keep a strong legal prohibition against human cloning, but to allow somatic cell nuclear transfer and embryo research under strict controls in the laboratory. One of the less important Lockhart recommendations is to allow the use of animal eggs (rather than human eggs) for laboratory studies to improve the efficiency of obtaining human stem cells.

    This would mean that doctors and scientists would not need to waste human egg cells, which are precious both ethically and in practice, while perfecting the techniques. Lockhart suggested this might be done under strict licence and regulation, with any products from the transfer destroyed in the lab.

    The use of animal eggs in this way is permitted in most countries, because regulators know that any animal egg where human DNA replaced the nuclear DNA of the egg could not survive even if someone broke the law and put the cell in the womb. Similar techniques are used by infertility specialists in every country to test sperm to see if they have the capability to fertilise eggs.

    Many scientists who support stem cell research – including me – think that, compared to other recommendations from the Lockhart Committee such as those relating to somatic cell nuclear transfer (“therapeutic cloning”), the use of animal eggs in the laboratory is unnecessary and a bit of a red herring.

    I should reinforce that there is no actual legislation before the Parliament yet. I don’t know if the legislation that finally appears will attempt to implement all of the Lockhart recommendations, or just key ones to do with SCNT, but it is quite possible that it won’t seek to implement the recommendation to do with animal eggs which Prof Williamson addresses – so it can seek to avoid the sort of scaremongering we’re seeing at the moment.

  5. I’ve added an update at the bottom of this post, which I’ll keep doing from time to time until it becomes clearer when and what legislation will appear before the Parliament.

  6. I’ve added a couple of more links at the end of the main post. Tony Abbott isn’t holding back on his rhetorical and political blowtorching, even though his Liberal colleagues are among those he is aiming at.

  7. It’s quite amazing really, we’re told that this new report had to be released because it was the subject of a FOI request anyway, although FOI doesn’t worry them in the case of the Treasure’s Conclusive Certificates on tax, bracket creep & first home owner’s grant.

    Apparently there is relevant new US research which is not going to enter the private member’s bill and debate.

    New US research changes parameters of stem cell debate:

    http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2006/s1722835.htm

    “ROBERT LANZA: Well, of course, the most basic objection to stem cell research is that it deprives embryos of their potential to develop into human beings.

    And many people, including US President Bush, are concerned about destroying life in order to save life. And the derivation of embryonic stem cells currently requires the destruction of living human embryos.

    However, what we show in this paper is for the first time now we can actually generate those stem cells without destroying the embryo and thus without destroying its potential for a life.

    So hopefully, this solves the current political impasse, at least here in the US and possibly elsewhere, and we don’t believe there is really any more rational reason left to oppose stem cell research.”

  8. Hi Andrew, those links don’t work either. For some reason we are getting your web page added to the link, which is giving a 404 Not Found error message eg for your fist link it came up

    http://www.andrewbartlett.com/“http://larvatusprodeo.net/2006/08/31/grave-ethical-concerns//”

    instead of the correct links, which are

    http://larvatusprodeo.net/2006/08/31/grave-ethical-concerns/

    and

    http://bulletin.ninemsn.com.au/bulletin/site/articleIDs/C61C6B94F11ABB5FCA2571D700141C63

    Or is it just my computer? Is it happening to others?

  9. Sorry Deborah

    that strange glitch seems to happen now and then, depending on which computer I’m on and maybe which browser I’m using. It is also sometimes easy to fix of and other times impossible – all a bit weird, but anyway I’ll try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

  10. We done on structuring such a balanced argument for embryonic stem cell research. I have no doubt that if the arguments were presented correctly, as opposed to ‘half animal-human hydrids’ and ‘organ harvesting’, there would be much greater support for these research techniques.

  11. Andrew:

    Thanks for the additional information.

    I think it’s really important that animal eggs are used for SCNT. I don’t think it will be possible to get enough human eggs. The scaremongers and purveyors of “Frankenbunny” need to be ignored.

    As it is, IVF couples are having to advertise and pay women to donate eggs, because it’s an uncomfortable, invasive procedure with other personal ramifications.

    I don’t agree with your comment that all IVF involves destruction of surplus embryos. This is simply not accurate. A lot of couples use up all of their embryos, or donate them to other couples. Some don’t have any embryos frozen or discarded at all.

    A distinction needs to be made between ART/IVF and embryonic stem cell research.

    Some ART technologies e.g. gamete intra-fallopian transfer (GIFT) don’t involve creating embryos outside of the body at all.

    I don’t find it bizarre that footballers might want to obtain stem cells from their newborn babies for later use on themselves. I think stem cells can be extracted from blood in umbilical cords.

    Research scientists have been using those cords for at least 15 years.

    I first heard of foetal calf blood being used for research in 1978.

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