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STEM cell-based medical treatments are the new frontier of scientific research.

These cells can be obtained from a number of ethical sources: cord blood, bone marrow, muscle, fat, nose cells and other adult tissues, but they can also be obtained from embryos in a process that kills the embryo, and this is where the moral dilemmas arise.

An embryo is the start of life -- we were all embryos once.

Significantly, all current medical treatments are from stem cells from ethical sources.

There are more than 60 successful treatments for conditions ranging from blood disorders and heart damage to spinal and eye injuries using these cells, and more are becoming available every week.

In contrast, there is not even a clinical trial using embryonic stem cells.

During a recent stem cell debate Prof Mark Kirkland of the Douglas Hocking Research Institute said: "Embryonic stem cell therapies will not be a viable and generally available clinical option for at least another 10 years, and by the time such therapies are available they will have been supplanted by cellular therapies based on adult stem cells."

Prof Kirkland also mentioned the tendency for embryonic stem cells to cause tumours when used in treatments, unlike adult stem cells.

Martin Pera, research professor for Monash University, agreed there were no medical applications yet from embryonic stem cells.

But Prof Pera insisted these were useful because they were able to become any kind of body cell, whereas adult stem cells were limited in potential.

I suggested that stem cells from ethical sources such as the newly discovered cord blood embryonic cells could have most of the properties of embryonic stem cells.

He said he wasn't convinced, but would be pleased if this was true because he "could do without the aggravation" presumably caused by pro-lifers claiming dissection of embryos is an attack on human life.

An ethicist at the meeting acknowledged that human life begins at conception/fertilisation but, because there were potential benefits, he likened killing embryos for their stem cells to "small-m murder".

Another dilemma has been created by Prof Ian Wilmut, of Dolly the sheep fame, who has asked he be allowed to clone embryos to develop treatments for conditions such as motor neurone disease.

A clone is produced when an ovum has its nucleus removed and replaced by a donor cell from an individual.

The resultant embryo is a clone of the donor (a more-or-less identical twin) but these embryos have neither mother nor father. They are "nobody's children".

Wilmut contends that by cloning embryos from diseased people and extracting the stem cells, treatments may be developed for currently incurable diseases.

In June 2005 the Federal Government appointed a committee under Judge John Lockhart to review Australia's Prohibition of Human Cloning Act 2002 and Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002.

The effect of these Acts was to prohibit human cloning and the creation of embryos for any purpose other than to achieve a pregnancy, but allowed certain uses of "excess" human embryos created through IVF.

The Lockhart committee is accepting submissions until September 9.

Write to the Lockhart Review if you believe that just because "excess" embryos are "going to die anyway" they should not be used for destructive research.

We are all going to die, but preferably we should not be cut up before we depart.

Many of these "spare" embryos could be made available for pre- natal adoption and implanted in the wombs of women who want them.

President George W. Bush has made $1 million available in the US for agencies such as Snowflakes, who arrange pre-natal adoptions and this is surely a better fate for these people-in-waiting.




BABETTE FRANCIS is co-ordinator of the Endeavour Forum, a counter- feminist, anti-abortion group



Member Organisation, World Council for Life and Family

NGO in Special Consultative Status with ECOSOC of the UN