Page 922 - Week 03 - Thursday, 3 April 2008

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There was not even a representative of the general community, much less any religious minister, so it has to be said that the focus of the committee from the start was blinkered by the search for one of science’s holy grails.

The Lockhart report was presented in 2005. Federal cabinet indicated that it was not inclined to act on Lockhart’s findings. However, a private member’s bill, the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006, was brought by a former health minister, Senator Kay Patterson. Senator Patterson’s bill was debated in the Senate on 6 and 7 November and had a very narrow passage through the Senate, with 34 in favour and 32 opposed at the third reading stage.

Certain amendments were passed during the committee stage. Penalties for breaching the bill’s provisions were increased from 10 to 15 years. Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett moved an amendment to prohibit the use of animal eggs, meaning that animal-human hybrid clones cannot be created. Unfortunately, there was no amendment to restrict the use of precursor cells from aborted female foetuses, meaning that such aborted foetuses can still be used as a supply of eggs.

The bill then moved to the House of Representatives, where it was debated from 30 November to 6 December 2006. An amendment was put forward by Michael Ferguson MP, Liberal member for Bass, to ban the use of aborted female foetuses as a source of extra cloning. If the amendment had passed, the amendment bill would have returned to the Senate, where it might not pass, given its close call last time. On the other hand, the Senate had not taken the opportunity to remove the use of aborted female foetuses when it had the chance. Nonetheless, those MPs in favour of cloning did not want to risk another vote in the Senate and voted against the amendment. Sadly, as predicted, the bill passed the House of Representatives by a comfortable margin of 82 to 62. It thus became legal for Australian scientists to clone human embryos for the purpose of destructive research.

Many states have introduced copycat cloning bills. Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and New South Wales have already legalised cloning. But this is where science immediately outstrips the law. On 19 December 2005, the Lockhart committee presented its report. Just four days later, on 23 December, a Seoul university internal review panel found that Hwang Woo-Suk, the acclaimed researcher on whose findings a great deal of the Lockhart report was based, had intentionally faked his 2004-05 research, in which he had claimed to have created patient-matched embryonic stem cells through cloning. He was subsequently indicted and prosecuted in May 2006.

News that Hwang had faked his research is significant because his two papers in Science were the only peer-reviewed cases of obtaining patient-matched embryonic stem cells by cloning. Hwang’s work has been proved false and there is no other case of peer-reviewed patient-specific embryonic stem cells anywhere in the world at this point. Other claims have been made but not peer reviewed. Therefore, the claim that therapeutic cloning can create patient-specific cells to treat disease has not been proven. Stem cells are naturally occurring cells which have the capacity to develop into many different types of cells and tissues in the human body. The hope is that stem cells will provide medical cures by synthesising replacement cells with tissues

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