22 September 2008
The Embryo Research Licensing Committee of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) issued its first licences, allowing scientists to clone human embryos using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) in order to obtain stem cells (see press release). The licences have been granted to Sydney IVF and if the company is successful, it would be the first production of stem cells from cloned embryos for therapeutic purposes, as opposed to medical research. A national ban on therapeutic cloning in Australia was lifted in December 2006 (see previous news) and since then several states have also lifted their prohibition on therapeutic cloning (see previous news).
SCNT or therapeutic cloning involves removal of DNA from the nucleus of an unfertilised egg and replacing it with DNA from an adult cell. Although other scientists in countries such as the UK have been granted licences to carry out research using SCNT (see previous news), none have so far been able to extract embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos. If successful, this research could lead to the generation of disease specific and person specific human embryonic stem cells for research. The cloned embryos will be generated from human eggs generated by IVF (in vitro fertilisation) that have been discarded as unsuitable for establishing a pregnancy. Although the technique could in theory also be used for reproductive cloning, this practice is still banned in most countries, and there have been calls for an international law to prohibit it (see previous news).