MEDIA RELEASE – 7 July 2011
Leading International Stem Cell Scientist Welcomes Legislation Review Recommendations
Professor Martin Pera, Program Head of Australia’s leading stem cell research organisation Stem Cells Australia based at the University of Melbourne, welcomed today’s Report recommending that Australian stem cell scientists can continue to use human embryos for medical research.
“Australia has a strong record in stem cell research. Like our colleagues throughout the world, we use many types of stem cells – those from adults, those from embryos, and those made using new laboratory techniques – to study human development and disease and to discover leads to novel treatments and cures. We believe this research will allow faster and more effective testing of new medicines, and eventually lead to cell therapy for spinal cord injury, and for diseases like cancer, heart disease and cystic fibrosis.”
“There has been remarkable progress in stem cell research over the last decade and many of these advances have come from the discoveries made using stem cells obtained from human embryos. Embryonic stem cells remain the benchmark for research in this field, and in the next decade, critical advances may depend on our ability to develop new cell lines from embryos.”
Professor Pera noted that Australia still has one of the strictest set of rules for the use of embryos in research. “Similar to the situation in California, where I have worked for the past five years, the level of ethical and practical scrutiny is very high in Australia. Every experiment has to be justified to a Research Ethics Committee. No embryos are used in research unless there is a strong scientific rationale to justify such use.”
Professor Pera commented that “Human embryonic stem cell research signals a revolution in biomedical science that will have the same impact in the 21st century that cancer research and genomics had in the 20th century. However, there remain gaps in our knowledge and many roadblocks to the translation of basic discoveries in stem cell science into safe and effective therapies. These hurdles will only be addressed through a concerted international effort. The Review Committee’s recommendations will ensure Australian scientists can help lead this revolution.”
In 2002, Australia was one of the first countries in the world to introduce specific legislation to regulate the use of donated human embryos in research. Under these strict laws, all research must be licensed and only embryos that are no longer required for infertility treatment and would otherwise be discarded, can be used for research. Under amendments introduced in 2006, Australian scientists are also allowed to apply for a licence to create human embryos for stem cell research using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). It was also an explicit requirement that the legislation is periodically reviewed by an independent committee of experts in law, ethics, science and medical practice to ensure its operations remain relevant to scientific advances and community standards.
The Heerey Report tabled today by Minister Mark Butler represents the deliberations of the 2010 Review Committee, chaired by The Honourable Peter Heerey QC. The recommendations were formulated after extensive consultation with scientific and community representatives.
Embryonic stem cells created in licensed research projects have been used by scientists to increase their understanding of how stem cells grow and develop into specific cells such as nerves, blood and heart cells. Stem cells have also been created from embryos known to carry a genetic disease, allowing the opportunity to investigate the development of the disease in the laboratory and identify new drugs that may be used in the treatment of such conditions. In Australia, these laboratory-created stem cells have been made from embryos affected by cystic fibrosis and Huntington disease. Overseas, the first clinical trials using cells created from embryonic stem cells have recently commenced for acute spinal cord injury and age related macular degeneration.
Professor Pera recently returned to Australia, leaving a prestigious position at the University of Southern California, to take up the Chair of Stem Cell Sciences at the University of Melbourne and lead the Australian Research Council Special Research Initiative in Stem Cell Science (“Stem Cells Australia”), recently awarded a grant of $21 million over seven years.
For more information contact:
Dr Megan Munsie on 0417 585 621 or Rebecca Scott on 0417 164 791
About Stem Cells Australia:
The Stem Cells Australia initiative brings together Australia’s premier life scientists to tackle the big questions in stem cell science in a seven year Australian Research Council Special Research Initiative. Led by Professor Martin Pera, the initiative links Australia’s leading experts in bioengineering, nanotechnology, stem cell biology, advanced molecular analysis and clinical research, and aims to uncover the fundamental mechanisms involved in stem cell regulation and differentiation, and translate that knowledge into innovative biotechnological and therapeutic applications. The unique multidisciplinary approach of this initiative will also foster and train the next generation of Australian stem cell scientists, cementing Australia’s future position in the field.
Stem Cells Australia has been established by the University of Queensland, University of Melbourne, Monash University, University of New South Wales, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research, Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Florey Neuroscience Institutes and CSIRO. Professor Pera was recently W.M Keck Chair in Cell and Neurobiology and Foundation Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Centre for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of Southern California. Previously, he was Professor at the Monash University Institute of Medical Research and Director of Embryonic Stem Cell Research at the Australian Stem Cell Centre.