The Government set up the Lockhart Committee, which was composed of independent experts in law, ethics, religion, medicine and science. They took evidence from hundreds of people and organisations. They weighed the evidence for months, and presented a unanimous report to Government that argues for continuing a strong ban on cloning, but for allowing somatic cell nuclear transfer in the laboratory.

It seems that one of the reasons why the Government is not agreeing to support the Lockhart Committee recommendations is because of the religious beliefs of some members of the Cabinet. We live in a country built by people with many beliefs, and it seems strange that one set of views, followed by a minority even of those who are religious, should have so much impact. While I respect everyone’s right to a view on this matter, the value of the research to persons suffering serious illness and handicap is the key issue for Australia. I don’t believe that a majority of people in our country want to see our medical research agenda set by religious leaders, rather than by doctors and scientists and patients.

The Australian Academy of Science is one of the many organisations that gave evidence in support of this stance, because on balance we think that there are some scientific questions that can be best answered using this laboratory technique. With Lockhart, we believe that strict legal regulation can maintain the division between what is ethically acceptable because it could lead to dramatic medical progress, and what is totally unacceptable, such as cloning people.

This is now agreed policy in most advanced scientific nations, including the US and the UK, which are actively recruiting our stem cell scientists. During the past few months, two leading Australian scientists, Professors Martin Pera and Paul Simmons, have moved to the United States, in part because of the very restrictive regulatory environment in Australia. To preserve Australia’s scientific endeavours in stem cell science, the Commonwealth Government should accept the recommendations of the Lockhart report.

Stem cell therapy is exciting because many diseases are caused when cells either go out of control or die. In cancer patients, cells divide when they shouldn’t, while in Alzheimer disease cells in the brain die off prematurely. Cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease affecting young people, has cells that don’t move salt around appropriately. One objective of researchers is to use stem cells to treat diseases, as has been done for leukaemia and other blood diseases for many years. Another is to use stem cells to understand why some of these diseases develop, to use either pharmaceutical or lifestyle approaches to reduce their incidence.

Embryo-derived stem cells can make any tissue in the body, and grow forever. However, they are not yet known to be safe for therapy. Isolating them involves destroying “spare” IVF embryos, which is allowed in Australia as in most countries. “Adult” stem cells (which can come from babies, or even a foetus, but are not from early embryos) are safe to use, but tend to form more of the tissue from which they are obtained, and are less flexible.

“Therapeutic cloning” involves transferring the DNA from the cell of an adult (or child) into an egg from which the DNA has been removed, and growing up cells in the lab which are (more or less) between embryonic and adult stem cells in properties. Therapeutic cloning would be particularly valuable for studying diseases we don’t understand because the cell doesn’t work properly and dies before the patient becomes ill (as for insulin-dependent diabetes of children, and motor neurone disease).

Professor Bob Williamson, who also acts as Chair of the National Committee for Medicine of the Australian Academy of Science, is currently heading a research group that’s trying to develop cell therapy for cystic fibrosis using adult stem cells.