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More questions than answers on embryo research grants.

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1 September 2002 B92/2002



During the past two weeks of debate over human embryo experiments, several assertions have been made by Alan Trounson.

Firstly, he presented the 'rat video' to MPs as evidence of the benefits of human embryo stem cells. When questioned, he confirmed that they were embryo cells from lines approved by President Bush. He later admitted that they were germ cells and not the type involved in the legislation before Parliament. If these cells behave in similar ways as alleged - 1) where is the research to prove it; 2) why not make the case by using research directly related to the cells before Parliament; and 3) if embryo cells weren't used in the 'rat video', then why do we need to use them?

Secondly, Mr Trounson provided a written reference for research to back up the 'rat video.' The reference is for an article published by Nature Medicine-Online in August 2002. The article has never been published. To provide a false written reference for it is very wrong. Again, the claims were made for 'human ES cells' when they were in fact germ cells from a two month foetus, not a five day embryo as envisaged in the legislation. In addition, the research was stated to show that it would help with Motor Neurone Disease. This is also incorrect. Motor Neurone Disease refers to something completely different to what was studied in the unpublished research.

Thirdly, Mr Trounson told the Coalition Party room briefing, and repeated his statement to me personally, that he had divested himself of all shareholdings related to embryo research because he wanted it understood that he was in it for the science only.

A search of the Singapore registered company, ES Cell International, reveals Mr Trounson still has 200,000 shares. His close associate, Associate Professor Martin Pera also has 200,000 shares. Mr Trounson gave me a private undertaking and the Party room a public undertaking, that he had no more shares in such companies. The explanation reported in The Australian yesterday was that there were complications slowing the divestment process. That is not good enough. If you say black is black, you can't come along later and say black is white. Mr Trounson's partner also has shares in ES Cell Australia which has 4, 667,000 preference shares in ES Cell International.

ES Cell International is a key commercial partner of the Centre for Stem Cells and Tissue Repair, which won $46.5m Commonwealth funding on 30th May this year for its Biotechnology Centre of Excellence proposal. It also received $11.07m from the Victorian government consortium. A core scientific participant of the Centre for Excellence is the National Centre for Advanced Cell Engineering, also headed by Alan Trounson. This centre received $5.5m of Commonwealth funding for a building and equipment for work on human embryonic stem cells.

An official in the Department of Education, Science and Training told a Senate Estimates Committee on 21st February this year that the majority shareholding in ES Cell International is Australian. Yet, figures from her department provided in answer to a question on notice reveal that Australian shareholding is less than 50%.

Therefore, the key commercial partner of two related Australian research centres that have received upwards of $63m of government linked funds (state and federal), is a foreign majority owned company in which Mr Trounson still holds a significant shareholding. Monash University owns 1.2m shares in ES Cell International.

There are many questions to be raised in the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee that is looking at the embryo research bill. Already it has been confirmed that once embryo products leave our shores, the legislation as it stands can not prevent practices outlawed in Australia, such as therapeutic cloning (as allowed in Singapore). Monash University must explain whether it intends to be party to experiments outlawed in Australia, and as a minority shareholder, how it will prevent such experiments from being carried out overseas by its international partners.

Many questions still exist as to how the foreign majority owned commercial partners will benefit from research funded by Australian taxpayers. These will be pursued with vigour in the Senate Committee process.

Media Contact: Paul Leven 07 3001 8150