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Tuesday, 30 November 2004
Page: 99


Senator STOTT DESPOJA (7:20 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

On Monday, November 22 I was honoured to open the Australian Stem Cell Centre's Second Annual Scientific Conference in Sydney. This conference featured a distinguished and impressive array of international speakers, such as Professors Weissman and Itescu and Doctors Allsop, Scadden and Watt in addition to our Australian scientists who are among the world leaders in their field.

The conference's timing was significant—coming almost 2 years after the very public and, at times, acrimonious debate over stem cell research in this Parliament.

As honourable Senators would recall, the debate—one of the longest in Parliamentary history—was challenging and controversial with no prospect of consensus over allowing the extraction of embryonic stem cells from excess ART embryos that had been donated with informed consent.

I was an active advocate for the legislation including co-authoring the Senate report in favour of the bills. And I am glad to have played a role in ensuring the passage of the legislation.

I believed then—as I do know—that there are sound grounds to encourage research that may alleviate disease; that there is intrinsic value to understanding biological processes such as cell differentiation and regeneration, independently of whether that yields direct medical applications; and, a sound, nationally consistent regulatory framework is necessary to provide publicly accountable oversight of research on excess ART embryos that otherwise would be allowed to succumb.

My support was not predicated on miracle `cures' being around the corner.

Unpredictability and uncertainty are intrinsic characteristics of scientific research. Whether scientists will fully or partially address the myriad of challenges such as overcoming immunological rejection or the ability to safely control cell differentiation in the short, medium or long term is simply not known at this stage.

It is premature to make overblown claims about cures generated by stem cell research. We simply do not know enough about the how, what or why of potential therapies as yet. But while we must be realistic, it would be unethical not to invest in possible treatments: to invest in hope, understanding and potential.

In the past few years, we have seen some amazing advances in stem cell research within Australia and internationally. Last week's conference was a chance to celebrate and promote those achievements.

One of the most exciting advances for Australia has to be that Australian scientists cultured embryonic stem cells from an Australian embryo in Australia this year.

Just last month, Professor Alan Trounson raised the concept of replacing human eggs with rabbit eggs in therapeutic cloning for the production of embryonic stem cells.

Recent Australian reports have stated around half of bone marrow stem cell transplantations had been successful for patients suffering from leukaemia and other blood cancers.

US scientists have reported the injection of embryonic stem cells into female mice has saved their offspring from a lethal heart problem, while the Canadians have reportedly found pancreatic stem cells—although I believe there is still some debate over that one.

This year, we have also seen the UK open a national stem cell bank; Sydney Cellular Therapies Laboratory open at Westmead hospital in Sydney; and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority change its mind on so-called `saviour siblings'.

In the two and a half years since its establishment, the National Stem Cell Centre, now the Australian Stem Cell Centre, has made many significant achievements, not the least of which was securing its future through a $55 million grant announced by the Prime Minister in May.

The centre is one of only two National Centres for Excellence announced as part of the Government's Backing Australia's Ability program.

In the past year, the Centre has honed its research interests and initiated eight Project Agreements and three strategic commercial arrangements to support those projects. The lodging of five US patent applications is another indication of significant progress.

I am sure the ASCC team eagerly awaits the completion of their Monash University laboratories around Easter next year.

The establishment of the independent ethics advisory committee—Stem Cell Ethics Australia—headed by world-renowned Reverend Colin Honey—will play an important role in informing a balanced debate on stem cell issues.

This remains one of the Centre's greatest challenges as it continues to initiate new research projects.

Balanced debate will be essential on an international and domestic level.

I am not sure if colleagues have been aware of the debate on cloning at the United Nations: an issue I have been pursuing without clear responses from the Government.

Australia did a back flip on this issue at the UN: after initially opposing the Costa Rican motion which proposed a ban on all forms of cloning, we co-sponsored it, despite this pre-empting our own review process.

As colleagues might be aware, the review of the Research Involving Human Embryos Act and the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act in Australia is due shortly.

As the review of both Acts will be a joint review, the Minister's choices will be important in shaping the composition of the review committee. I ask the Government if the Minister has already presented the details of the proposed review to the Prime Minister?

One of the successful amendments I moved during the passage of the legislation calls for the reviewers to consider and comment on the recently released ALRC report, Genes and ingenuity: Gene Patenting and Human Health.

The report recommended the review also examine the issues of the exploitation of intellectual property rights over stem cells when they consider the establishment of a National Stem Cell Bank. I think there are many good reasons to consider the establishment of a National Stem Cell Bank, including boosting Australia's leading role in international stem cell research into the future. However, I am sure the debate over the stem cell bank will again draw criticisms from some sectors of the community.

Stem cell research is still a prickly issue for some in the community, although public support for this important research is steadily being won over as people are progressively educated about the potential benefits.

Interestingly, a recent study by Swinburne University found that almost 65 per cent of Australians supported stem cell research conducted by public sector scientists, but only 36 per cent supported research by private Australian companies.

The same study found 66 per cent of people supported research with adult stem cells, 54 per cent approved of using stem cells extracted from surplus IVF embryos, while only 36 per cent of people were in favour of using stem cells from cloned embryos.

I was honoured to meet Christopher Reeve and pay tribute to his work tonight in this adjournment debate. His death marks a significant stage in the stem cell debate.

When he spoke about the positive aspects of therapeutic cloning technologies in layman's terms at a Sydney dinner, many people said to me “that's a great idea, do we have that?” I explained our legislation specifically bans Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, indeed, that our legislation is quite conservative. I often think that had Superman visited Australia 6 months earlier we might have seen a different outcome.

Reeve's and others activism helped raise the profile of stem cell research to a level where it became a major campaign issue in the US election which, in turn, gave it international publicity.

Stem cell research issues have also drawn attention from other high profile advocates with Governor Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson having a public argument about the Californian Proposition 71 to provide $3 billion of funding for stem cell research over 10 years. Brad Pitt even lent his support to the proposition which Reeve was heavily involved with, as was, I believe, Professor Weissman.

The proposition, which will see the building of a “California Institute for Regenerative Medicine”, was supported by 59 per cent of the Californian people. With President Bush's conservative stance on stem cell research, California's investment has been likened to a “gold rush” that will attract researchers from the rest of the US.

I hope we do not lose any more of our Australian scientists overseas because of this.

It is a credit to the ASCC that they have been open and transparent—taking into account commercial considerations—in their research and have embraced the broader roles prescribed by the Government such as the promotion of biotechnology research.

Last week's conference was just one of the results of the ASCC's efforts to promote Australian biotechnology. I was also particularly pleased to see the ASCC Postgraduate Scholarship Program commence this year, with ten scholarships being awarded. Students definitely need them.

All these initiatives go to the heart and the major challenge of these debates—ensuring the community is well informed and not afraid of the technology.

Mr President, I look forward to the commencement of the review of the legislation and to receiving more information from the relevant Ministers as to what is planned.