The Australian Government has granted its first licenses for research on embryos to two IVF clinics. Sydney IVF and Melbourne IVF have been given a green light to thaw up to 1060 embryos and to experiment on up to 860 of them. In accordance with a law passed in late 2002, the embryos must be left over from IVF treatment and must have been created before 5 April 2002.
Although the media highlighted the hope of treating degenerative diseases with embryo-derived stem cells, only 50 of the 1060 embryos are actually destined for this purpose. Most of the others are to be used for research into creating better culture media for growing embryos. Undoubtedly this will eventually have considerable commercial benefit for Sydney IVF, which has been authorised to experiment on 740 embryos. It distributes its IVF culture media around the world through an American associate, Cook IVF.
Sydney IVF will also use 50 of its embryos to create stem cells.Medical director Professor Robert Jansen focused on these plans in hailing the announcement as a "very historic" day for Australian science. "This research is ultimately for treating degenerative diseases… and hopefully spinal injuries," he told The Age newspaper.
At least more 12 applications are being considered by the National Health and Medical Research Council. Another leading IVF clinic, Monash IVF, wants embryos for stem cell expert Professor Alan Trounson and for trainee embryologists.
In contrast to the bitter nation-wide debate in 2002, the news of the licences prompted little comment. Victorian Health Minister Bronwyn Pike praised them as opening up "new opportunities for treatment of people with diseases". Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine, an opponent of embryo experimentation, on the other hand, said that the NHMRC had handed out "licenses to kill". "No civilised society should reduce the status of that human being to one of experimental tool or laboratory rat," he said.
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