The treasurer of the Australian state of Victoria has told a national government inquiry into cloning and stem cell research that scientists are being hampered by existing laws. John Brumby believes that 'therapeutic cloning' - research using stem cells derived from human embryos created using SCNT - should be permitted in the country. His calls have been backed by the government of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Chief Minister Jon Stanhope said that thought must be given to Australia's regulation of stem cell research, or the nation risked 'losing its talent and companies to overseas competitors'.
A public consultation on two pieces of federal legislation which govern cloning and embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research in Australia has recently closed. The two Acts, passed in 2002, together ban reproductive cloning, prevent scientists from cloning embryos to obtain stem cells and restrict them to research on surplus IVF embryos conceived before the Acts were passed. The six-member Legislative Review Committee, chaired by former Federal Court judge John Lockhart, is now gathering evidence on developments in reproductive technology, and medical and scientific research since 2002. The committee is due to deliver its findings to the Federal Parliament by 19 December 2005.
Last week, Mr Brumby told the committee that therapeutic cloning 'offers the greatest hope for realising the benefits of stem cell research in the short term, particularly in drug discovery and identification of patients that can respond to a particular medicine'. He added that 'it could put Australia in the driver's seat for developing the next generation of new medicines', and that without such research, the country 'risks losing its hard-won leading stem cell status'.
Jon Stanhope said in a statement that 'Australian jurisdictions must ask themselves very soon how big a role they wish to play in this next scientific revolution'. Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott said that a change to the current legislation is not a foregone conclusion. He added that he does not personally support embryonic cloning, and predicts a conscience vote on the issue. However, ethicist Julian Savulescu argues that it would be immoral not to lift the ban, telling the Sydney Morning Herald that the research 'could save millions of lives'. Opponents of therapeutic cloning, such as Dr Gregory Pike of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, point to the promise of research on adult stem cells. But Savulescu counters that science is 'like a horserace', and the winner can't be predicted beforehand. 'You have to let all the horses run', he said.