Two Australian clinics have been granted licences by the Australian federal Government to conduct research on embryos left over from fertility treatments and donated for research purposes, the first such licences to be issued in the country. Following the issue of the licences by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Sydney IVF and Melbourne IVF will now be allowed to thaw up to 1060 surplus embryos, and to conduct experiments on up to 860 of them.
Sydney's licence allows its scientists to conduct research towards improving success rates in IVF, gaining a better understanding of embryo development, and to derive embryonic stem cells (ES cells) for medical research. Research in Melbourne will concentrate on the improvement of IVF success rates for couples with specific forms of infertility.
In order to comply with a law passed in December 2002, the licences stipulate that the embryo research must take place on embryos created before 5 April 2002. The law followed a long consultation process before a national approach to embryo research was decided and, following initial debates, therapeutic cloning - the creation of embryos by cloning specifically for research purposes - was banned. When the Act was being debated, it seemed at first that the government would propose that all ES cell research in Australia be limited to existing stem cell lines, as it had been in the US in August 2001. But some state leaders said they would allow ES cell research to take place in their states despite a federal ban and, following additional pressure from the scientific community, in April 2002 Prime Minister John Howard approved research on stem cells derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments.
Professor Robert Jansen, medical director of Sydney IVF, said that many couples had already agreed to donate embryos for the research, adding 'I hope we'll have stem cell lines within a couple of months. Professor Jock Findlay, chair of the NHMRC Embryo Research Licensing Committee, said that other clinics may also be issued ES cell research licences, but gave no details. 'This is the first, I hope, of a number of decisions and they are landmark decisions and they will allow research in Australia to be competitive with the UK and the US', he said. Victorian Health Minister Bronwyn Pike said the licences open up 'new opportunities for treatment of people with diseases'. But pro-life Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine, called them 'licences to kill', adding 'no civilised society should reduce the status of the human being to one of experimental tool or laboratory rat'.