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Australia Approves Stem Cell Research

Dec 5, 2002

Australia's parliament gave the green light on Thursday to medical research on human embryos after the upper house Senate agreed to impose strict guidelines on research and limit the stem cell lines which can be used.

The Senate passed the law in a rare conscience vote with the support of 45 legislators, while 26 opposed the controversial bill to allow stem cells to be taken from about 70,000 spare embryos created for in-vitro fertility treatment.

The lower House of Representatives had approved the bill in September.

It is now up to Australia's six states to draw up and pass legislation based on the federal blueprint, because health policy is a state responsibility.

Health Minister Kay Patterson said the legislation as passed allows the donors of embryos to decide whether to donate those embryos for research.

"If a lot of people have concerns, there will be very few embryos on which to do research, that will be the test," she told reporters.

Embryonic stem cell research has become one of the most emotive and hotly debated issues in Australia's parliament since a state's euthanasia laws were vetoed in the mid-1990s.

Because of the controversy, party leaders allowed members in both houses to vote by conscience rather than on party lines.

Advocates believe this research could help find cures for a range of diseases. Opponents argue that it is tantamount to killing a human being since the embryo will die in the process.

Stem cells can transform into other types of human cell, offering the chance to regenerate damaged organs or tissue.

Adelaide-based BresaGen Ltd, a leader in stem cell research in Australia and the United States, said the law, if matched in the states, would clear the way for the company to do more of its work in Australia.

"That's obviously cost effective for us and good for Australia," BresaGen medical director Chris Juttner told Reuters.

BresaGen's shares jumped 16% to 58 cents, valuing the group at A$32 million ($18 million) after the Senate approved the bill.


The proposed Australian law is midway between the restrictive US approach, which limits stem cell research to cell lines from embryos that have already been destroyed, and more liberal British laws that allow embryos to be created for research.

It would open the way for new cell lines to be developed in Australia, which could be used for human treatments.

"We believe there are real opportunities in deriving cell lines in Australia that don't exist in the US," Juttner said.

BresaGen is already talking to IVF clinics to collaborate on deriving new stem cell lines that could be used in treatments for people.

The Senate, which has to pass any bill before it becomes law, debated the bill for about 50 hours before cutting off discussion and forcing a vote that allowed some technical amendments to the government's legislation.

Opponents succeeded in amending the bill slightly to tighten up licensing, reporting and research on stem cells.

But proposed amendments banning the export of stem cell lines, the use of stem cells and embryos in drug testing and the labelling of drugs or cosmetics made after being tested on embryonic stem cells all failed.

© 2002 Reuters Ltd