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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6055

Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia in the Senate and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services) (12:31 PM) —I would like to go back to the beginning of this important national debate on the Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002. COAG decided in April that researchers should be given access to potentially 70,000 frozen embryos on a uniform national basis. Debate developed over the moral question of whether embryos that would have died anyway should be destroyed for research. In May we saw a huge grant of $46.5 million awarded to the National Stem Cell Centre. COAG made that legislation, the grant and the centre possible. Then we had a Senate inquiry into the bill. I moved the reference of the bill to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee to aid further scrutiny. The Hansard record of the Senate committee takes us much further down the road of understanding than was possible during the debate in the other house. Members of the parliament have been presented with an either/or scenario: either we pass the bill, or so-and-so will die or Little Johnny will never walk again. That has been a sword at everyone's throat. It has not been pleasant for anyone. No-one in this parliament has a monopoly on compassion.

We are more fortunate in the Senate because there is more information to make an informed decision than during debate in the lower house and at COAG. The debate is changing its shape, not just in Australia but in the world. There has been very little take-up of eligible stem cell lines listed with the US National Institutes of Health. The European Union announced in September that it was postponing public funding of new embryo research. Witnesses before the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee told us that the real therapies of the future would come from discovering the triggers that make our own cells heal themselves.

Even as we debate this legislation, there are new advances in adult stem cell therapy. The rubbishing of adult stem cell therapy in the debate is disturbing. It has many runs on the board. It is also more scientifically advanced than embryo therapy, which still has to be proven in animal models before it gets anywhere near humans. Embryo research has not even reached proof of principle stage. A lot of adult cell work is being done in human clinical trials as we speak. The disparagement of adult stem cell therapy has its origins in money. Embryo therapies require lots of money to grow the cells and involve patents, intellectual property and so on. Adult stem cell therapy is not such a money-making venture because the patient's own cells are used. The research is publicly available and is not tied up in intellectual property agreements. If adult cells become the norm, then all of those who invested in embryo research will lose out. Adult cells are a direct threat.

Now the debate has moved on from the either/or scenario. The legislation before us today does not require us to wrestle with the profound ethical dilemmas pitting religion against science. Our consciences can instead be exercised on the more familiar ground of political leadership and good government. There are several reasons. Firstly, embryo research will continue in Australia regardless of this bill. It is happening now, it happened yesterday and it will happen tomorrow, whether we pass this bill or not. The Senate is not being faced with a do or die decision that will give life or take it away. The National Stem Cell Centre has 25 per cent of all available embryo stem cell lines in the world now. Witness after witness before the Senate committee stated that there was no need for additional stem cell lines to carry out the research for the proof of principle stage. That can be done with what we have got in the labs at present.

Some senators may think that if there is a chance that access to additional embryos will lead to a cure then we should take that chance. If we go down that line of thinking we soon come to a terrible hurdle. Let us say that Dr Smith thinks that he has found a way to use embryo stem cells to help a patient, even just a little. What is the first thing that Dr Smith has to do? He has to find some embryo cells that are compatible with his patient's cells. The head of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Professor Michael Good, told the committee that a bank of 10 million embryo cell lines would be needed to have a good chance of getting a match for Caucasian persons. The same applies for Asian persons. Aborigines have great difficulty finding matching donors for kidney and liver transplants. I ask the question: where would we find a bank of 10 million embryos for them? The logistics of finding a match in order to put embryo cell therapy into practice are absolutely horrendous. The cost alone would put it out of reach.

Is there an alternative? Professor Trounson would have us believe that you can regenerate the thymus into tolerating foreign cells. But when asked for proof he provided a paper that did not match his claims—in fact it did not go anywhere near them. If the thymus were the solution, it would be headline-breaking news across the international scientific community. It was not, because it is not the solution. Is there any other way that embryo stem cell therapy can actually be put into practice on a real live human patient? There is: through cloning a patient through a process known as nuclear transfer and growing the necessary embryonic stem cells in fermentation tanks. But the cloning throws up serious implications, and that is why we will prohibit it in Australia when the vote is taken.

So poor Dr Smith: he spent years researching embryo cells and he is ready to try it on a human, but he cannot because there is no bank of cell material to match his patients, there is no thymus gland being reactivated and there is no cloning allowed. T.S. Eliot said that between the idea and the reality falls the shadow. When the idea of embryo research cures meets up with the reality of being totally impractical, you get a very long shadow indeed. If this bill is not about cures, what is it about? If most scientists say we can work on existing embryo lines, and a few say they only need 50 or up to 1,000 more, why does this bill create access to some 70,000? There are only 16 cell lines available now that are listed with the US NIH. Our stem cell centre has one-quarter of the world's lines. Why are we opening the embryo floodgate to the world? Someone somewhere needs generous access to Australian embryos to make money.

The months since COAG have highlighted significant discrepancies between Alan Trounson's claims and the facts. I do not say these things lightly or in any personal way. If someone puts himself up as a leading public advocate of a particular policy position and then wins $46.5 million of federal money for it, it is our job as senators to make them accountable for their statements, their claims and their right to be trusted with enormous sums of public money. Alan Trounson showed a rat video to persuade MPs and senators to vote for this bill. The cells used were not the embryo cells involved in this bill; they were from a foetus. He did not come clean until exposed. That was the first misrepresentation. Then he distributed a paper to a coalition briefing. It quoted a reference relating to the rat video research. He stated that such a paper was published in the very prestigious Nature medicine journal. Not only did it relate to the wrong kind of cells but the paper had been rejected by the editor. It was never published, yet Trounson even provided a publishing date in black and white. That was the second misrepresentation.

At the coalition party room briefing, Trounson told the gathering, and then repeated to me personally, that he had divested himself of all shareholdings so that the public would know he was only in it for the science. A company search found that he still held 200,000 shares in ES Cell International, the commercial heart of the National Stem Cell Centre. When exposed, he admitted to a further 200,000 shares held in a trust for him by Monash University. He also has shares in other companies that would potentially benefit from the association with the centre. That was another misrepresentation. Professor Trounson offered a statement of his financial interests to the Senate committee. He neglected to put in four company directorships. That is another misrepresentation that is not yet known. He also claimed the recent research on the thymus gland would solve the rejection problem of applying cell therapy, but experts say the quoted research will do nothing of the sort. This is another misrepresentation.

Why the need for all these misrepresentations? And where do they end? We hear stories of how scientists leave Australia because they cannot get funding. This week North Queenslanders were disappointed to find their badly needed irukandji jellyfish research grant was rejected by the NHMRC. I would be very frustrated if I were a scientist dedicated to public health outcomes and kept on seeing the same people win huge grants, with little or no health outcomes at the end. Public funding arises as a result of this bill. It is a huge prize. But has the $46.5 million been won fairly and squarely? Why does a majority foreign owned company registered in Singapore play such a large role? There is a pattern of research-funding decisions that raises serious questions of conflict of interest. If grants have been recommended improperly, that goes to the credibility of the whole debate.

I believe there is sufficient evidence to warrant the investigation of a number of recent grants. Peter Jonson is the chair of the expert panel that awarded $46.5 million to Trounson's National Stem Cell Centre. He also awarded $5.5 million of a major national research facility grant to Trounson's other cell centre. BresaGen is a commercial partner of both these grants. Jonson later set up a business with the Stem Cell Centre's chief operating officer—Trounson's self-styled secret weapon in getting the large grant. This business is a joint venture with a CRC grant of some $17.4 million.

The chairman of the CRC funding panel is Geoffrey Vaughan, a former deputy vice-chancellor of Monash. Vaughan is also a director of BresaGen, which stands to benefit considerably from the Stem Cell Centre grants award by Jonson. Jonson is a former chairman of ANZ Funds Management. ANZ has approximately 2.6 million shares in BresaGen. Vaughan has presided over the funding decision of the $17 million dairy CRC, of which Trounson is a director. There have also been two CRC grants totalling $29.9 million to groups associated with Bob Moses, who is the Chairman of the National Stem Cell Centre.

Vaughan was also appointed to the industry R&D board that subsequently gave Vaughan's own company, BresaGen, a grant of $4.9 million to find a stem cell therapy cure for Parkinson's. Expert evidence to the committee from a Parkinson's Australia representative showed that the wide nature of the disorder meant that embryo stem cells would never be able to cure Parkinson's. Certainly BresaGen has yet to show any significant public health outcomes for all the millions that we have given them.

A Trounson company, CopyRat, which clones rats, claims on its web site to have received a $1 million industry R&D Start grant. Another Trounson company, IngenKO, also received $246,500 to `develop therapeutic compounds'—once again helping drug companies. This money came from the Biotechnology Innovation Fund under the umbrella of the AusIndustry R&D board that includes Vaughan. There are two other major funding sources: the Australian Research Council and the NHMRC. Trounson's boss at Monash is on the board of the ARC and is the chair of the NHMRC. Another prominent Trounson supporter, also on the ARC board, is Professor Brian Anderson, from the Academy of Science—and a great believer in cloning.

BresaGen has received $476,000 from the ARC, while Trounson's outfits have received several grants totalling over $644,000. In addition, they both benefit from the $46.5 million centre of excellence grant, yet to be provided, jointly with Biotechnology Australia. One ARC grant of $364,000 went to Trounson's CopyRat company to fund rat cloning strategies. The grant summary states that `the development of this technology will bring considerable benefits to the areas of physiological research and drug design'. We seem to be spending a lot of money helping drug companies and cloning.

The NHMRC has been a great supporter of Trounson over many years, particularly via the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development. The NHMRC chair is a member of the institute's management board, which received $4.26 million in an NHMRC partnership grant to work on embryo cells from Singapore. The intellectual property from the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development has been assigned to the majority foreign owned ES Cell International.

Another member of the MIRD management advisory board is Charles Curwen, who was responsible for the fundraising campaign that brought in a major donor in HIH through Ray Williams, who received an honorary doctorate of law from Monash. Williams was an advisory board member of MIRD. Curwen was similarly honoured with a Monash honorary doctorate. He is also a director and shareholder of Maccine Pty Ltd, Trounson's monkey-cloning company.

While millions of dollars are being spent funding the commercial goals of some well-connected investor scientists, what has happened to grant proposals with genuine public health outcomes that have missed out year after year? No wonder scientists leave in frustration and feel intimidated about speaking out lest their funding suffers as a result. The Monash group know how to look after their own.

Alan Trounson must be one of the most prolific grantees in Australian history, with a haul of over $97 million. If we pass this bill we will give Trounson's commercial partner, ES Cell International, carte blanche to do what they like with Aussie embryo products once they leave our shores. There is nothing in this bill to stop or regulate exports. Stem cell lines can go overseas and be used in cloning of animals and in human mixed experiments. They will also be used for drug screening. Trounsons's application for the $46.5 million said:

The Centre will be developing pure populations of cells from its internal and external R&D activities and plans to be primarily a supplier to screening companies on a non-exclusive basis for drug screening of selected cell types on a fee for service or a licence basis.

We are being asked to underwrite the intellectual property portfolio of a foreign company dealing in embryo product, cloned or otherwise. Not only that, but we are being asked to put our faith in the promises of one who has failed time and time again to speak true to us right here in this building. This is not a conscience vote on where life begins. This bill is properly a conscience vote on where political responsibility ends.