May 28, 2024

First salvos fired in Australian stem cell battle

Public hearings have begun in the lead-up to a decision by the Australian parliament on whether to allow therapeutic cloning. A committee headed by Justice John Lockhart is canvassing the issue and reviewing developments since 2002. At the first hearing in Adelaide, Professor Peter Rathjen said, “if this sort of technology is adopted in its broadest sense, then my view is it will be an utter paradigm shift in the way we think about medicine… We may be able to produce a whole new generation of people, or forthcoming generations of people, who have a very high quality of life pretty much up to the time that they die.” He estimated that the market for stem cell technology would be more than US$100 billion a year. “If Australia can get even a slice of that kind of action,” he said, that would also have a spectacular impact.”

An article in the Australian newspaper by science writer Leigh Dayton previewed the debate. She portrayed it as a set-piece battle between optimistic, can-do scientists and sceptical, conservative Catholics. The central figure in her article was Paul Brock, a lobbyist for research on motor neurone disease. Mr Brock, who has the disease himself, says passionately: “I want them [research opponents] to look me in the eye and say it’s not ethical to use embryos to look for cures to this disease.”