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Monday, 2 December 2002
Page: 6911

Senator BROWN (11:00 PM) —At the request of Senator Nettle, I move amendment (R1) on sheet 2713 revised:

(R1) Page 15 (after line 2), before clause 20, insert:

19A Licences to be issued after the establishment of the National Public Human Stem Cell Bank

The NHMRC Licensing Committee must not issue a licence in accordance with this Division until the National Public Human Stem Cell Bank has been established and is operational.

The revision is that the word `bank' was missing from the first version that was circulated.

Senator Chris Evans —Oh, that was the trick; I couldn't work out what was happening.

Senator BROWN —We were not trying to set up a cell; we were trying to set up a bank. The Australian Greens are proposing a national stem cell bank. It should be established before any licences are issued under the proposed licensing system set out in the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. The aim of our two amendments on sheet 2713 is to ensure that the stem cell bank is established. We are seeking support for this amendment because it is stronger than that proposed by Senator McLucas and Senator Stott Despoja for the review of the legislation to consider whether a national stem cell bank should be established. The review in their alternative amendment will commence two years after the act receives royal assent. It may take 12 months—the bill does not include a reporting date—and the report of the review is to be presented to the Council of Australian Governments with no requirements for COAG to act and no mechanism to bring the matter before the Commonwealth parliament again. Providing for the review to examine this matter in two years time means that it could take three or four years before a stem cell bank is operational for the nation. There are really compelling reasons to establish that bank now, and through this amendment parliament should provide the mechanism for doing so.

Madam Temporary Chairman McLucas, as you know the House of Lords report earlier this year supporting the establishment of a human stem cell bank in the United Kingdom stated that it would lead to fewer embryos being used for stem cell research than would be the case without such a bank. That is a desirable outcome of itself. The UK bank would be a repository for existing and new, adult, foetal and embryonic stem cell lines. An Australian stem cell bank would address the concerns of researchers about not having access to stem cell lines because the institutions and/or companies that discover stem cells and develop stem cell lines obtain intellectual property rights over them.

The bank would also address the patenting of human stem cells, which concerns the Australian Greens and clearly other members of the Senate, judging from the debate that we heard just a moment ago. Human stem cells should not become the property of private corporations or institutions. Let me reiterate that, because that is a very strong point as far as the Greens are concerned: human stem cells should not become the property of private corporations or institutions. If they should be found to enable the development of therapies that improve the quality of life for people with serious, debilitating diseases or conditions then access to them to develop therapies should not be constrained because of private rights. The bank would provide access for accredited researchers to the stem cell lines.

It is not necessary to wait until the British stem cell bank—which was, as I earlier indicated, announced in September—is operational to begin work on establishing an Australian human stem cell bank. We do not need to take the British model and apply it wholly to our country, but of course we can draw on it to formulate our own model. Waiting two years, as the alternative amendment would do, to begin examining whether we should have a stem cell bank may enable the patenting of human stem cell lines in the meantime in a bid to beat the establishment of the bank. This could undermine the purpose of the bank, which is to ensure that human stem cell lines are held in a public repository and are available to all accredited researchers.

We think that the Australian Health Ethics Committee is the most appropriate body to undertake an investigation into the establishment of the bank. It has the expertise in the area, it is operational and it would obviate establishing a new body to undertake the investigation. We want that investigation to be public, and that is provided for in our amendment. We are proposing that the report of the investigation be made public by being tabled in parliament, and we have set a date for it—1 July 2003—to ensure that it happens. We have given some guidance on what the bank should do—for example, provide a repository for human stem cell lines and make human stem cell lines available to accredited bodies for approved research. Of course, it may have additional, related functions depending on the investigation's outcome.

As far as we know, only the UK is moving to establish such a bank, and that is not operational as yet. We acknowledge that this is a new field, but the bank is a vital component of our perception of any regulatory regime dealing with human stem cell research. It will be critical to our evaluation of this legislation once we get to the third reading stage. We are confident that Australian experts, in consultation with the public, can develop the arrangements for the bank so that Australia can ensure that market forces and profit motives do not constrain this area of research and the promise it may hold. I strongly commend to the Senate this first amendment of Senator Nettle's.