From a public and media point of view, the cloning/stem cell debate has been and gone in Australia, with legislation allowing such research passing both houses of Parliament in December. In the months leading up to the vote in the Senate, I wrote a number of times on this blog about my thoughts, and sought the views of the public. I also got myself some negative media by mentioning that I wasn’t 100% certain that I had done the right thing in voting for it – which probably wouldn’t have been noticed except for the unexpected situation that my vote made the difference between the legislation passing or failing.
Along the way, I moved an amendment in the Senate which resulted in the law in Australia prohibiting the use of animal eggs in creating embryo clones for use in stem cell research. Both ‘sides’ of the debate – those dead against embryonic stem cells and those unquestioningly for it – supported my amendment, although I assume this was as much for tactical reasons as anything else.
A controversy has now broken out in the UK around the same issue of whether animal eggs should be used in cloning. I’ve found it interesting to see this debate playing out in the UK compared to Australia in the lead up to the vote in our Parliament.
Embryonic stem cell research in the UK is regulated and licensed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). The current law in the UK allows the HFEA to issue a licence allowing research on cloned embryos produced in animal eggs. However, having received two applications for this type of research, HFEA has decided not to issue any licences in this area until there is further public debate and examination of the issues involved, which they say “are unique and different from mainstream human embryo research.” These stories in The Times and on Salon give some more detail and reactions.
In Australia, the big question in the public and political debate was whether to allow the creation of embryos for experimentation through cloning. Whether animal eggs could be used to do this, rather than just human eggs, was a subset of the main question and this didn’t get much genuine debate on it’s own merits, apart from the ‘Frankenbunny’ type of headlines and commentary from opponents (which frankly I think more harm than good to their cause).
In the UK, the regulatory authority has now decided there should be more debate and scrutiny of the specific issues involved in using animal eggs for this activity before going ahead with it. In Australia, the proposal to allow the use of animal eggs was one of fifty-four recommendations contained in the Lockhart Review which examined the whole stem cell/cloning question. It was basically proposed in order to reduce the need to rely on human eggs for conducting this type of research, although there was some concern that the potential of the so-called ‘yuk factor’ risked reducing public support for the research if it involved created embryos with animal eggs.
When I was deciding whether I would move an amendment to the law in this area, I was influenced by statements from leading Australian scientists who were supporters of embryonic stem cell research. For example, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Jim Peacock, commented on the Lockhart Review recommendation that:
… animal eggs could be used for some of the research so that fewer human eggs would be required. Many scientists think that using a nucleus and egg cell from different species complicates the research. Most scientists regard this particular recommendation to be of little importance.
Professor Bob Williamson, a stem cell researcher from Melbourne University said:
… in contrast to the great importance of permitting the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer into human enucleated eggs in culture, the use of animal eggs in this way is not critical for scientific progress. Indeed, using more than one species could make the interpretations of some experiments more difficult.
In the UK in the lead up to the decision by the HFEA, there was a lot of concern expressed publicly by scientists that HFEA might simply rule out all together the use of animal eggs in cloning. A group of 45 scientists, academics and politicians wrote a letter of concern to The Times, which reported that:
Patients with incurable crippling diseases may be denied the first effective treatments because of government plans to outlaw the creation of “human-animal” embryos. The proposed ban on fusing human DNA with animal eggs is an affront to thousands of Britons suffering from conditions such as motor neuron disease and Alzheimer’s, leading scientists said yesterday.
This BBC report said
scientists say using human-animal mixes rather than human eggs to get the stem cells makes sense because human eggs are in short supply, plus the process is less cumbersome and yields better results.
This healthcare provider website reported that:
The UK risks losing its reputation for pioneering stem cell research if the government goes ahead with plans to ban research which uses animal-human hybrid embryos, according to a large number of scientists. Research using hybrid embryos is thought to be vital in the quest to find better treatments and cures for a variety of mental health afflictions, including Alzheimer’s disease and Huntingdon’s disease.
This backgrounder piece in The Independent outlines some general information and a few different perspectives. Among it is a statement that “a major report on stem-cell research in 2000 by a group of high-level experts led by Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, concluded: “The use of eggs from a non-human species to carry a human cell nucleus was not a realistic or desirable solution to the possible lack of human eggs for research or subsequent treatment.””
It looks to me like the political side of the debate in the UK will play out similar to the Australian debate – a lot of strident assertions by both sides, but not a lot of listening. The Times has taken an approach broadly in favour of such research, but I thought the point made in their editorials on the controversy have relevance no matter what your view on the topic.
There is no question of giving life to chimeras, but the public must be informed about controversial research and be at the centre of an evolving debate. Without this, all scientific research, especially into human life, may be seen as threatening our deepest beliefs and values.
When scientists clearly explain what they are actually doing, the mass of the public supports them. …. The Government’s independent regulator for IVF treatment and embryo research has set a good example: to research and consult before rushing in to legislate. That is scientific method. That is the democratic way.