Embryo stem cell research is currently illegal in Australia. However that is likely to change after PM John Howard indicated last week he would allow a conscience vote in Federal Parliament on the use of stem cells. MPs from all parties have agreed to work together on a private member's bill to extend stem cell research. In December 2005, a government-commissioned review of biotechnology recommended scientists should be allowed to use therapeutic cloning to generate stem cells for research into specific diseases. Instead, the cabinet voted to maintain 2002 laws allowing only spare embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures to be used for research. Scientists hope that stem cells can be grown into a variety of tissues and cells which will help treat degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and motor neurone disease
Stem cells in animals are primal undifferentiated cells that retain the ability to produce an identical copy of themselves when they divide (self-renew) and differentiate into other cell types. Medical researchers believe stem cell research has the potential to change the face of human disease by being used to repair specific tissues or to grow organs.
However there is widespread controversy over the research, which arises from the techniques used in the creation and usage of the stem cells. The creation of a stem cell 'line' requires either the destruction of a human embryo, removal of some embryonal cells, and/or therapeutic cloning. A stem cell line is a family of constantly-dividing cells which are obtained from human or animal tissues. Most stem cell lines are created from embryos. An embryonic cell is kept in a petri dish and provided with nutrients it would normally find in a womb. The stem cell debates have reinvigorated the ‘pro-life’ movement who have concerned themselves with the rights and status of the embryo as an early-aged human life. The embryo itself is the earliest stage of reproduction. As soon as a sperm fertilises an egg cell, the resultant cell, called a zygote will contain the DNA of its parent cells. The zygote divides by a process called mitosis and separates into two identical halves. The term embryo is used to describe the early stages of this development, after the zygote has divided at least once, but before the process has completed to produce the next stage of development.
Many opponents of the research say scientists should focus on adult stem cell research without the use of embryonic stem cells. These claims are usually made on the basis that the embryonic stem cell research causes the destruction of human life. In 1969 the first human in vitro fertilization (IVF) was accomplished. In 1995, the American Human Embryo Research Panel advised the Clinton administration to permit federal funding for research on embryos left over from IVF treatments and also recommended federal funding of research on embryos specifically created for experimentation. However this request was turned down based on moral and ethical concerns. The moral problem is that many believe that life begins at conception. The influential US conservative spokesman, Jerry Falwell, believes new medical research needs to pass a three part test "Is it ethically correct? Is it biblically correct? Is it morally correct?” While the biblical dilemma may only be of direct relevance to Falwell’s constituency, secular scientists do understand that personal morality and professional ethics carry weight in the argument. The moral and ethical quandary is how to apply the principles of life given the advances in biotechnology that have made traditional definitions on when commences life difficult to apply.
The issue becomes further clouded with the principle of therapeutic cloning. Therapeutic cloning is currently legal for research purposes in the UK and a few other countries. In 2004 a Korean team headed by Professor Hwang Woo-suk was feted for its announcement that it produced the world's first cloned human embryos. At the time he described the breakthrough as "a giant step forward towards the day when some of mankind's most devastating diseases and injuries can be effectively treated through the use of therapeutic stem cells. But allegations he used unacceptable practices to acquire eggs from human donors, then faked two landmark pieces of research into cloning human stem cells, have left his reputation in tatters. Dr Hwang admitted that female researchers in his own lab had supplied eggs for his research. In 2006, he was fired from his professorship at Seoul National University (SNU) and in May was charged with fraud and embezzlement.
The controversy of Dr Hwang was a set-back for therapeutic cloning and stem cell research as a whole. But the technology is not about to disappear any time soon. The overall problem is that the moral and ethical view on the beginnings and sanctity of life is macroscopic whereas science has moved on to astonishing microscopic levels of distinction of how cells are created. The debate needs to focus on how to cross the apparent unbridgeable chasm between the philosophy and the science.