The New Zealand Ministry of Health is consulting on proposed guidelines for research using human embryonic stem cell-lines (ES cell). The guidance, published on 30 November, would allow scientists to work on human ES cell-lines imported from abroad, but would not allow the derivation of ES cells from surplus IVF embryo, or the creation of embryos for research by New Zealand scientists. The closing date for submissions on the draft guidelines - which are available via the Ministry's website - is 3 March 2006.
Research on human embryos in New Zealand is regulated by the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act 2004, but the legislation does not cover the use of existing ES cell-lines for non-reproductive research. Many scientists hope that work on ES cells - the body's 'master cells', capable of growing into almost any body tissue - will lead to new treatments for a range of conditions. The Ministry of Health has been approached by two groups that want to carry out such work in New Zealand, including one that hopes to study motor neurone disease.
The draft guidelines include provisions around ethical review, provisions associated with the way in which human ES cell-lines are established, provisions relating to the proposed use of established ES cell-lines and duties of ethics committees. 'The proposed guidelines would place appropriate restrictions around research and provide certainty for researchers, ethics committees and the public', said Health Ministry advisor John Hobbs.
Hobbs says the proposed guidelines are conservative by international standards, but added that the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology advisory committee will be more closely examining the ethical issues surrounding ES cell research next year. The Catholic Church in New Zealand has already expressed its opposition to human ES cell research. 'All embryos have the same status. Life must be granted unconditional respect', said church bioethics spokesman John Kleinsman. However, scientist Professor Richard Faull, of Auckland University, welcomed the guidelines, saying they created a way forward for crucial research with ES cells, and that New Zealand had to keep up with the rest of the world.