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March 17, 2011

Aussies review embryonic and cloning legislation

by Ubaka Ogbogu

The Australian government is currently reviewing their stem cell and cloning research laws. The review, which began on December 22, 2010 with the appointment of an independent Legislation Review Committee (LRC) chaired by a retired federal judge, is the second since the enactment in 2002 of the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction Act and the Research Involving Human Embryos Act. The Australian Parliament amended both statutes in 2006, following an initial review mandated by each statute. The amended statutes contain provisions that require the Australian Minister of Mental Health and Aging to undertake further legislative reviews. These provisions instruct the reviewers to consider, among other things, medical and scientific development in embryonic stem cell research andthe actual or potential clinical and therapeutic applications of such research.”

Results from a government survey conducted in 2010 showed that the majority of Australians are in favour of stem cell research using both adult and embryonic stem cells. This report was one of the documents submitted to the LRC by the Australian Stem Cell Centre (ASCC) as part of their recommendations in support of the current regulatory framework. The ASCC submission includes five key recommendations:

  1. The current national regulatory framework that oversees the responsible use of human embryos in Australian research should continue without significant change.
  2. Australian scientists should continue to have the opportunity to generate new human embryonic stem cell lines in licensed research projects as access to these cells remains vital to Australian research.
  3. Research using human embryonic stem cells should continue to be regulated by the existing national guidelines that govern the ethical use of all human materials in research.
  4. Support should be provided to assist Australian researchers to access stem cell lines from Australia and overseas provided they have been created in conditions consistent with Australian regulations.
  5. Reproductive cloning should continue to be specifically banned in Australia. 

The LRC will submit its findings to the Minister and the Australian Parliament on May 27, 2011. Information on the legislative review process, including the terms of reference, review timelines and public submissions, can be found here.   

A similar legislative review required by Canada’s equivalent legislation, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, was never conducted, and expired in 2009. However, recent actions by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, such as hearings on stem cell research developments and an administrative review of Assisted Human Reproduction Canada, indicate that the legislators may be contemplating a review of the Act. Such review may well be inevitable given the recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling that several sections of the Act are unconstitutional and invalid.

Laws governing stem cell and cloning research in Australia and Canada are substantially similar. However, there are a few important differences. For instance, unlike Canada, Australian law prohibits the creation of hybrid embryos (except ones created by inserting the nuclei of human cells into animal ova) for purposes other than sperm quality testing. Conversely, Australia allows the differentiation of genetically altered iPS cells into germ cells, a procedure that is likely prohibited under the Canadian legislation.



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