Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Status Quo for Australian Stem Cell Science

By AusSMC (ed)

A review of Australian stem cell legislation has recommended that researchers should be allowed to use human embryos to create stem cells but only in licensed research projects.

“The current Australian legislation strikes the right balance between protecting the rights and interests of the donors of the human embryos and providing Australian researchers with access to these valuable stem cells.

“Australian stem cell scientists, along with researchers from around the world, are using human embryonic stem cells to increase our understanding of how the body repairs itself following injury or disease. We are making important steps towards developing new treatments for a number of chronic and currently untreatable conditions.

“Investigations into the biology and therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells will be the bedrock of stem cell research for many years to come.

“All stem cell types and research approaches should be actively pursued because it is not yet clear which type of stem cells will be most suitable. The current Australian regulation allows researchers to fully explore all of the different types of stem cells and their potential.

“Responsible research towards reducing human pain and suffering, with appropriate safeguards, must continue to remain an imperative in Australia.”

– Dr Megan Munsie, Australian Stem Cell Centre

“Australia has a strong record in stem cell research. Like our colleagues throughout the world, we use many types of stem cells – those from adults, those from embryos, and those made using new laboratory techniques – to study human development and disease and to discover leads to novel treatments and cures. We believe this research will allow faster and more effective testing of new medicines, and eventually lead to cell therapy for spinal cord injury, and for diseases like cancer, heart disease and cystic fibrosis.

“There has been remarkable progress in stem cell research over the last decade, and many of these advances have come from the discoveries made using stem cells obtained from human embryos. Embryonic stem cells remain the benchmark for research in this field, and in the next decade, critical advances may depend on our ability to develop new cell lines from embryos.

“Australia still has one of the strictest set of rules for the use of embryos in research. Similar to the situation in California, where I have worked for the past 5 years, the level of ethical and practical scrutiny is very high in Australia. Every experiment has to be justified to a research ethics committee. No embryos are used in research unless there is a strong scientific rationale to justify such use.

“Human embryonic stem cell research signals a revolution in biomedical science that will have the same impact in the 21st century that cancer research and genomics had in the 20th century. However, there remain gaps in our knowledge and many roadblocks to the translation of basic discoveries in stem cell science into safe and effective therapies. These hurdles will only be addressed through a concerted international effort.

“The review committee’s recommendations will ensure Australian scientists can help lead this revolution.”

– Professor Martin Pera, Chair of Stem Cell Sciences, University of Melbourne

“We are pleased that the panel has recommended that human embryos can continue to be generated through somatic cell nuclear transfer for the production of human embryonic stem cells. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is the process of taking an adult cell, such as a skin cell, and transferring it into an egg that has had its chromosomes removed. This egg can then give rise to embryos and embryonic stem cells in a manner similar to embryonic stem cells generated from surplus embryos donated from patients undergoing IVF treatment.

“The advantage of using somatic cell nuclear transfer is that we can transfer cells from patients with specific genetic diseases to establish stem cell models of disease. We feel that this work is extremely important as it still remains to be determined whether the generation of stem cells by non-egg-based approaches is still going to be an effective approach. We need to generate sufficient knowledge from as many approaches as possible to ensure that we develop the most appropriate stem cells for the future.”

– Professor Justin St John, Director, Centre for Reproduction and Development, Monash Institute of Medical Research

“The decision to allow the continuation of stem cell research accords with the evidence offered by the Australian Academy of Science, and most other doctors and scientists. Australian doctors are making major advances in our understanding of human disease by using both adult and embryonic stem cells.

“It is important that scientists can continue to use all cell types, and to compare them with each other. It is also important that our laws continue to ban unethical practices, such as human cloning, as recommended by the review panel.

“The recommendations of the review mean that Australian scientists will be able to keep pace with medical research being conducted internationally. This allows researchers to carry out similar experiments to those being conducted by their American and European collaborators. Keeping our laws as recommended will allow Australia to carry out medical research that is both ethical and world-class.”

– Professor Bob Williamson, Secretary for Science Policy, Australian Academy of Science

Compiled by AusSMC