Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cloning Review at last! If you didn't laugh, you'd cry

This is part disgrace, part farce. A Review that is only announced a few days after the final date at which the statutory report was meant to be completed and tabled (i.e. within four years of the date of Royal Assent which was 12th December 2006); a Government Minister who does not appear to know the effect or subsequent history of the legislation to be reviewed; a new Committee of Review featuring the architect and chief activist of the last Review! What a display of government amateurishness, and what a shamefully cynical process for conducting a new Review on such a contentious matter.

Here is the release from the Federal Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, and the poor bloke can't get much right. Take this, for instance:
The Acts, passed by the Australian Parliament in 2002 and followed by complementary state and territory legislation, banned human cloning...

No, Minister. For the record, the Acts from 2006 were not followed by complementary state legislation, at least in Western Australia, because that enlightened State (early 2008) rejected the federal laws in the light of the recent Yamanaka breakthrough in 'direct reprogramming' (in Nov 2007) that rendered cloning redundant. And let's cut the weasel words that the Acts "banned human cloning". The whole point is that they allowed human cloning - go ahead and create as many embryonic humans as you like, just do not let the cloned human embryo be brought to birth. Hence the title "Prohibition of Human Reproductive Cloning", i.e. live-birth cloning. There is no prohibition on cloning, provided the embryo is destroyed in research prior to 14 days of age. Create, but be sure to kill, or you will have broken the law under this Act. Nice, that.

As to the makeup of this committee: shame, shame, shame... As mentioned, Prof Loane Skene, Chair of the last Review (the Lockhart Committee) and a leading lobbyist for cloning, gets a guernsey again: how sweet to get to review her own handiwork, since the 2006 legislation is almost verbatim the recommendations of her Committee. And not only that - she has gone into print as recently as October this year, in the peer-reviewed journal of public affairs, Viewpoint, stating that the current cloning laws are not needing any changes. How prejudiced can a review Committee member possibly be!

Well, a close second for publicly-stated prejudice is the sole scientist on the Review Committee, Prof Ian Frazer. He has been an outspoken activist in favour of cloning, and used the full authority of his role as "Australian of the Year" in 2006 to lobby MPs and Senators. He wrote an influential and, in my view, gravely misleading letter on that letterhead to MPs and Senators on the eve of the vote in 2006 on the current legislation. His letter systematically rebutted the case our association had put to the Parliament (including a full page national newspaper ad only days earlier) as to the superiority of adult stem cells and the hype over embryonic stem cells and cloning.

Most outrageous was his claim in the letter that the problem of tumour formation (which in truth is the fatal flaw in embryonic stem cell / cloning science and not a clinical problem at all with adult stem cells) is really a problem with all stem cells! "Any potential for cancer formation would be inherent to stem cells from any source (adult or embryo)", he writes. So there! A pox on both their houses, says this authoritative scientist! Load of nonsense - the truth is that tumours in embryonic stem cell experiments are an accepted and expected problem, while adult stem cell experiments are notably free of tumours. Even the International Society for Stem Cell Research acknowledges (paragraph 2) that "embyonic stem cells themselves cannot directly be used for therapies as they would likely cause tumors" - but that problem does not apply to adult stem cells. Either Frazer does not understand this central, highly practical problem in embryonic stem cell science, or this was a deliberately misleading message sent to MPs and Senators on the eve of the vote - effectively countering our truthful argument that only adult stem cells could be safely used in direct treatment, as only adult stem cells were safe from the risk of tumours. And now he is on the Review Committee!

In our national newspaper ad we had stated, correctly: "Embryonic stem cells remain unproven in animals and unusable in humans - for reasons such as tumour formation - while our own adult stem cells are safely used in many human conditions." By way of rebuttal Prof Frazer claimed, astonishingly, that "there are no therapeutic uses of stem cells (whether embryonic, adult, or generated by nuclear transfer)". His claim set the B-S metre swinging wildly, given that by late 2006 we had hundreds of patients showing therapeutic benefits from adult stem cells - admittedly early and often small-scale, but certainly 'therapeutic uses' - in a wide range of conditions, including heart disease, wound repair, corneal repair, auto-immune disease. And of course exactly zero with embryonic stem cells. Again, a more truthful statement confirming that there are, and were, adult stem cell therapies, is found at the ISSCR site (paragraph 3) - referring to conditions and trials that were published before Frazer wrote his letter to Senators:
The range of diseases where stem cell treatments have been shown to be beneficial in responsibly conducted clinical trials is still extremely restricted. The best defined and most extensively used is blood stem cell transplantation to treat diseases and conditions of the blood and immune system, or to restore the blood system after treatments for specific cancers. Some bone, skin and corneal diseases or injuries can be treated with grafting of tissue that depends upon stem cells from these organs. These therapies are also generally accepted as safe and effective by the medical community.

But 'these therapies' were flatly denied by Frazer in his letter to Senators on the eve of the vote. Frazer's was a muddled as well as misleading claim about 'no therapeutic uses', given that later in his letter he acknowledged therapeutic uses for adult stem cells in bone-marrow transplants, but it was certainly effective in persuading our representatives that our side of the debate was wrong and they had better allow "all avenues of research" to proceed. On any honest comparison of the actual science versus what he gave our MPs to believe,  how is that intervention not an abuse of his authority as "Australian of the Year", in my view misleading our elected representatives on the very eve of the vote? And how then is such a politicised scientist considered suitable as the sole scientific member of this 'independent' Review Committee?

He concluded his "Australian of the Year" letter to MPs and Senators with as shameless a piece of emotional arm-twisting as I have seen, playing the 'sick child' card:

The decision you make... has the potential to impact on the quality of medical treatment our children receive. Will our children look back in 25 years and say "Our parliamentarians made the right decision, that gave us access to cures for diabetes, heart disease, and neurological disorders", or will they be forced to travel to the US, Europe and Asia to seek treaments?

I have no problem with a known cloning advocate like Frazer being on the committee, as long as his influence could be balanced on the committee by a scientist of equal standing, somebody who could challenge his dubious factual claims - but there is nobody. From Queensland we have an expert in the ethics of midwifery! What earthly use is she on a cloning review committee - unless she wants to upgrade the legislation to allow live-birth cloning so she can expound on the ethics thereof? In Queensland we have giants in the field of stem cell science, like Prof Alan Mackay-Sim or Prof Peter Silburn, so why not put them up there with Frazer? Aha! But they are likely to bring some rigour to bear on the actual facts of stem-cell science, especially post-Yamanaka, and at times have exhibited the personality disorder of 'cloning scepticism', and that would never do! In Victoria we have one of the most senior research scientists in the country, and an expert on stem cells where Frazer certainly is not - Prof TJ Martin - who would have been the obvious choice for this Review, if sound science was the true objective. But no, Victoria gives us the lawyer and serial committee activist, Skene.

This committee is, like its predecessor, another cynical exercise in getting the Report that the "just research everything and who gives a damn about human embryos" lobby desires. Good luck to the token Catholic ethicist on the Committee, but because he has no other scientist on the committee to challenge the well-established views and advocacy of Prof Frazer and Prof Skene, I suspect his voice will be drowned by the noise of the committee's big guns.

Or will Frazer and Skene astonish their critics and prove to be objective and balanced about the diminished place of cloning in the new era of stem cell science? Will they acknowledge that the one great argument for cloning in 2006 - that SCNT was the only way to obtain specialised pluripotent stem cells that exactly match the patient - is no longer a valid argument (post-Yamanaka, in the new era of iPS direct reprogramming)? Will they accept that, had we known in 2006 what we know now, no legislation on cloning would ever have been drafted, let alone passed on the floor of Parliament?

Therefore, will they have the grace to conclude that this divisive practice of cloning, which in the view of many desecrates human life and violates the profound meaning of human reproduction and relationships, is no longer justified and can now safely be repealed in favour of the non-contentious iPS alternative? Please, please, let it be so.