SYDNEY--Australian researchers are relieved that it's not worse, although many wish it were better. Federal, state, and territory leaders have attempted to resolve a raucous national debate over the use of human embryonic stem (ES) cells by agreeing to allow some research to continue under strict regulation.
The proposed legislation, to be introduced in June, would allow scientists to work with ES cell lines that have already been established, and it would permit researchers to derive new cell lines from surplus in vitro fertilization embryos created before 5 April that would otherwise be destroyed. The rules would, however, prohibit all forms of cloning, including so-called therapeutic cloning: the transplantation of a nucleus from an adult cell into an ES cell to generate cells for tissue engineering. The technique, which is still a long way off, holds the promise of producing tissue that is genetically matched to a patient.
The new rules are more flexible than conditions imposed on federally funded U.S. researchers, who can use ES cells only from cell lines created before 9 August 2001 (ScienceNOW, 10 August 2001). Australian researchers estimate that there are some 70,000 frozen embryos potentially available, although the agreement says that donors must give their permission before the embryos can be used. Martin Pera of Monash University's Centre for Early Human Development says that the new agreement allows him and his colleagues to keep their Melbourne lab intact (Science, 8 March, p. 1818). "We'll be able to derive new cell lines to support research elsewhere and also in Australia," he says.
The legislation would reconcile what until now has been a patchwork of state and territory rules. "Getting a national consensus is terrific," comments John White of the Australian Academy of Science. It's also a compromise between research advocates, who wanted greater freedom, and conservative politicians and religious leaders, who sought a ban on all embryo research.
But Paul Simmons, who works with adult stem cells at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute in Melbourne, says that Australian scientists and clinicians will be "disadvantaged" compared to groups in nations such as Britain and China that allow work on ES cells for developing new therapies. "We'll be put out of the game for a period of time," he says. "How do you compete?"