[This article was published in the Newcastle Herald on 1 September, 2006]
Two Senators are preparing Private Members Bills to change the current laws that stop cloning. If one of those Bills passed, it is likely that State Parliaments would face their own conscience votes on complementary state legislation.
The private members Bills are based on the Lockhart Report which recommended a radical research agenda that called for human cells to be transferred to animal eggs to form embryos. They admitted that most countries do not allow the creation of hybrid or chimeric embryos involving human tissue. Lockhart also recommended that the laws be changed to allow clones using the genetic material of more than two people.
To any reasonable persons mind, these are big steps. What was the overwhelming argument that made Lockhart agree to mixing human and animal genetic material?
Supporters of cloning say it is needed to study diseases. Their future plan is to take cells from a patient with a disease, put them in a rabbit or pig egg, grow embryonic stem cell lines, study their behaviour and test drugs on them.
However, there is a quicker and more efficient way. You can take stem cells from a patient and study them direct. This is already happening in Australia with adult stem cell researchers studying Parkinsons Disease, Motor Neuron Disease and many others.
Our very own scientists have proven that there is a better way that requires no embryos, and no rabbit eggs.
It is customary to look at the scientific evidence before taking a step of such magnitude as cloning. What evidence was on the Lockhart table? They undertook a review of all the scientific literature. In the section Developments in Human Cloning, arguably the crux of the Lockhart Report, there are just three scientific papers cited. That is evidence in itself that human cloning is barely on the radar.
Most importantly, two of those three papers were later found to be faked by the disgraced South Korean scientist Hwang. That leaves Lockhart with very little to support such an extreme cloning agenda. To the extent that Lockhart relied on the Koreans research, the Lockhart report is fatally flawed.
The Australian Stem Cell Centre also relied on Hwangs research in their submission to Lockhart. That is not surprising as the Centres Alan Trounson boasted that I've known of this scientific group [Hwangs] for some time because we've exchanged scientists. I've had scientists from the group working in our laboratory. So I've known about the work and I've taken an interest in how they've been progressing for some time now, at least for several years. How was it then that no one picked up on the massive fraud going on in the Korean lab?
The important thing to remember is that cloning needs lots of eggs. Lockhart said that getting these eggs from women, carries significant risks, including, in very rare cases, infertility or even death and The need for oocytes may therefore lead to the exploitation of vulnerable women through financial or other incentives. So they came up with animal eggs as a substitute. Senator Stott-Despoja raised the prospect of using rabbit eggs in a speech to a stem cell conference in 2004.
The community has a very high regard for scientists who are motivated by a desire to ease human suffering. That is as it should be. But scientists are human too and there are some who stand to benefit financially if the laws are changed to allow cloning. Some Australian scientists calling for cloning have registered patents here and overseas on processes used in cloning. It would be foolish for legislators to overlook the problem of vested interests in the debate on cloning.
A vocal member of the disbanded Lockhart committee, Loane Skene, is employed by an international committee that promotes cloning and any comments have to be interpreted in that light.
The bottom line for many people is that if there is a chance, however slight, that this cloning technique may help combat some terrible disease, then we should support it. That was the line they used in 2002 to allow research on spare IVF embryos. They said it would not be necessary to clone newly created embryos. Four years on, theyve backflipped and said, actually, er, we do need cloning with rabbit eggs and so on.
What will they want in another four years? Reproductive cloning?
Everyone wants to cure diseases. The question is whether you have to make human rabbit clones to do it. The answer is No.