The passage by the Australian Senate makes the final approval of a law defining Australian law regarding embryonic stem cell research (ESC) a certainty. The Australian House Of Representatives has to agree to the minor changes that the Senate made to the version of the bill that the Australian House already passed (and by a very wide 3-to-1 margin). While the Australian law is not as lax as that in the UK the researchers and investors in Australian will be able to work on embryonic stem cells with far less legal doubt and uncertainty than equivalent researchers face in the US.
After months of delay and often bitter public debate, Australia's Senate yesterday (December 5) passed legislation regulating embryonic stem (ES) cell research 45 votes to 26, along with a separate bill to ban human cloning. The legislation allows scientists to work with existing ES cell lines and to create new lines from surplus in vitro fertilization embryos created before April 5, 2002. It also signals an end to a patchwork of state and territory rules.
The bill must yet gain final sign-off from the House of Representatives on 13 amendments passed by the Senate. Prime Minister John Howard said he expected them to pass when the bill returns to the house next week.
The amendments include more parliamentary scrutiny of research licences and a review of whether a national stemcell bank is required to keep stemcell lines in public hands.
In the US there is enough doubt about the continued legality of even privately funded embryonic stem cell research that it discourages private investment in ESC work.
A debate over the issue went nowhere in the U.S. Senate earlier this year. President George W. Bush and some members of Congress want to ban the research, while others, including some anti-abortion conservatives such as Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, would like to see it continue while banning the use of the technique to create a cloned human baby.
"It's been tied inappropriately to abortion politics, and as long as it remains tied to that issue, the hopes are dismal," Haseltine said.
Current U.S. policy strictly limits the amount of publicly funded research that can be done on embryonic stem cells. Private companies can do as they please but legislation being pushed by Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback and others would put an end to that, too.
In the US much of the legal action has shifted to the state level. While many states have been enacting laws that make cloning and ESC work illegal there is now a contra-trend in other states to explicitly allow ESC work.
Following California's lead, lawmakers in at least three other states will take up proposals next year to encourage research on stem cells taken from human embryos. The measures also would permit scientists to use cloning to produce human embryos for stem cell experiments.
More on the move of the fight to the state level.
Similar motives prompted California lawmakers to pass a measure this year supporting embryonic stem cell research, and Gov. Gray Davis signed the bill in September. The Biotechnology Industry Association, a trade group, sent the California law to its affiliates in 35 states and suggested they try to pass similar measures.
Stem cell researcher Dr. Evan Snyder has left Harvard for the Burnham Institute in La Jolla and one of the reasons he cited for the move is the California state law that supports ESC research.
California Gov. Gray Davis, meanwhile, signed a new law Sept. 22 that affirms the state's support of embryonic stem-cell research. That is another reason Snyder was encouraged to move to San Diego.
"I think the new law may go a long way toward making California a place that almost becomes a magnet for stem-cell biologists," he said.
Larry Goldstein, a professor of pharmacology at the University of California San Diego Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine who lobbied for the state law, said the welcoming political climate could also bring research funding.
"If you're trying to attract private investment, it's more likely to come to a state where (stem-cell research) is legal than in a state where there's uncertainty," Goldstein said.
Christopher Reeve has been lobbying the New Jersey state legislature to pass a bill that authorizes embyronic stem cell research. The bill has made it out of a Senate committee and will now be considered by the full New Jersey Senate.
Although the bill does not provide for government funding, Reeve said it does give key assurances to pharmaceutical companies that might foot the bill.
"Pharmaceutical companies are not interested in going out on a limb with research money if they are afraid the work will be banned," Reeve said.
The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee approved the bill Monday. It now heads to the full Senate.
A bill has been introduced into the Massachusetts legislature to explicitly legalize ESC research in Massachusetts.
If enacted, the bill would explicitly authorize the controversial research and allow the donation of embryos from fertility treatments for stem cell research.
The bill would also set up a government-administered fund to support stem cell research, to be headed by the state commissioner of public health.
If Congress moves to outlaw ESC work and cloning work then the battleground could move to the courts as it becomes a constitutional question of whether the federal law can trump state laws. It would be interesting to know what legal bloggers such as Eugene Volokh and Glenn Reynolds think would happen in the courts. Even if the states eventually won that battle while the battle was going on US industry would shy away from investing in ESC research. Though adult stem cell research would still proceed and ESC research in other species will also still get done.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2002 December 06 02:58 PM Biotech Society|