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Australia Set to Give Green Light to Embryo Research

Nov 11, 2002

Australia was expected this week to give the green light to controversial research on human embryos but only after a marathon debate in the national parliament and a barrage of attempted legislative amendments.

The lower house in September approved a bill to allow about 70,000 spare embryos created for in vitro fertility treatment to be used for stem cell research after one of parliament's most heated, emotive debates of recent years.

The bill goes to the upper house Senate on Monday with the debate expected to take all week followed by a rare conscience vote. A less controversial bill banning human cloning was expected to pass the Senate unanimously.

Although opponents of embryonic research on Monday ramped up a last-minute campaign to block the move, a survey conducted by The Australian newspaper found at least 33 of the 76 senators would support the legislation with just 19 opposing the bill.

The newspaper said 24 senators were yet to make up their minds or were maintaining a public silence, although at least two of these--left-leaning Greens--were almost certain to endorse the bill and thereby ensure its passage.

"My feeling is that there will be (majority support)," Health Minister Kay Patterson told reporters.

Advocates of the research believe embryonic stem cells could help find cures for illnesses such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, as well as diabetes and cancer.

But others argue that extracting the stem cells will kill the embryos, with no proof that this line of research will produce the coveted results.

"No cures from embryo research can be anticipated in the next few years and all such cures are merely speculative," argued one medical ethnical lobby group, Do No Harm, in a statement.

The issue of embryonic stem cell research has become one of the most emotive debates in Australia since parliament vetoed a state's euthanasia laws in the mid-1990s.

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.

Scientists, biotechnology firms and researchers threaten to take their work and investment offshore if the bill fails.

In Australia, BresaGen Ltd is leading research on stem cells which can transform into other types of human cell, offering the chance to regenerate damaged organs or tissue.

© 2002 Reuters Ltd