Stem Cell D-Day

Co-authored with Dr Elizabeth Finkel

Late last year, the Lockhart Legislative Review Committee – the Federal Government’s own handpicked experts – handed down its recommendations on the fate of stem cell research in this country. Among other things, the Committee recommended lifting Australia’s ban on so-called “therapeutic cloning”. Having first shelved the report on the basis of a cabinet vote, a backbench revolt saw the Prime Minister agree to a broader discussion at the first party room meeting after winter break. That meeting – otherwise known as Stem Cell D-Day – is today.

The flashpoint of the debate will be therapeutic cloning. This type of cloning is not about copying people, but copying their cells.

What is the potential of this technique? Imagine Mary, a child with leukaemia, needs a bone marrow graft to replace her diseased cells. One of her skin cells would be cloned to generate a primitive embryo. The cloning technique involves inserting the skin cell’s nucleus – which runs the genetic program for skin – into a donated human egg that’s own nucleus has been removed. Being inside the egg resets the program of the skin’s nucleus to begin dividing. Several days later embryonic stem cells will be extracted; a process that will halt all further development. The matched graft would significantly raise Mary’s odds of survival.

Mary’s therapy has actually already been achieved in mice. In 2002, a US researcher used the technique to give mice a perfectly matched bone marrow transplant. “Oh to be a mouse”, said the late Christopher Reeve. George Daley now has a license to use therapeutic cloning to make matched human bone marrow cells.

Alternatively if Mary suffered from motor neuron disease or juvenile diabetes, such cells would provide faithful models of the disease to test new drugs. The promise of therapeutic cloning has already galvanized research in the UK and the US where highly esteemed scientists are working for better treatment of bone marrow disease, motor neuron disease, diabetes and the crippling disease amyotropic lateral sclerosis. Other countries also have the legislative freedom to pursue this research: Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Finland, Israel, Singapore and China.

Many in Howard’s party are vehemently opposed to the technique. They believe it is morally repugnant to create and destroy an embryo. They also vehemently contest the true therapeutic potential of the technique. Others in the party believe the moral imperative to advance research that could alleviate human suffering trumps concerns about the status of an embryo transiently created from a skin cell.

The Lockhart Review sought to cut through this debate and indicate a way forward. Lockhart argued that the views of different communities on the moral acceptability of therapeutic cloning are not reconcilable, and, because research in this area is in its early stages, there is no point in second-guessing its long-term prospects. Given this, the Review advised that the debate must shift to the proper role of governments in managing such radical moral disagreement.

It is this question, not irreconcilable ones about the moral status of the embryo or the ultimate medical benefits of the science, that should be at the centre of today’s party room debate about the fate of embryonic stem cell research in Australia.

The Lockhart Review advocated the Government adopt a compromise approach. Rather than allow the moral values of one section of the community to ride roughshod over those held by the rest, it urged the government to capitalise on areas of community consensus by, for instance, continuing its ban on reproductive cloning. Where moral views were hopelessly divided, it supported a licensing system where both institutional ethics committees and a government appointed committee of experts examine each research proposal individually.

This is the type of regulatory framework that has been in place since 2002 to control research using surplus embryos from fertility clinics. Thus far nine licences, all of limited duration, have been issued, five for improving fertility treatment, four for stem cell research. The licensing requirements are stringent, with researchers needing to justify the purpose of the research and the number of embryos required.

In areas of radical moral disagreement, the proper role of government is to pursue meaningful compromise. The existing ban on therapeutic cloning serves as a legal brick wall. The Lockhart committee recommended replacing the wall with a hurdle, high enough to block proposals of questionable merit, but low enough to allow those of great worth to get over.

In a pluralist democracy like Australia, the Federal Government must either accept the Lockhart recommendations, or allow our elected representatives to cast a conscience vote on the issue.

Dr. Elizabeth Finkel is a former biochemist and author of the prize-winning book by ABC books.

Publication history

Stem Cell D-Day  The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald