As the Legislative Review into Australia’s cloning laws finishes its hearings this week, a leading Australian scientist involved in the attempt to create cloned human embryos has joined overseas scientists in stepping back from the controversial practice.

Dr Robert Jansen is head of Sydney IVF, which is the only laboratory in the country to have attempted cloning since it was legalised in 2006. With cloning, an embryo is created which is the identical genetic twin of the patient in order to obtain stem cells from that embryo that exactly match the patient.

This technique was permitted in Australia after a prolonged Parliamentary debate and conscience vote in 2006, and only after enormous public expectation had been created that cloning would lead to cures for many diseases. For example, leading scientist and Australian of the Year in 2006, Professor Ian Frazer, told ABC radio that these embryonic stem cells “have the potential to be basically a repair kit for the human body” and that this research “has the capacity to solve very many of the major diseases of mankind: brain disease, heart disease, diabetes for example.”

The reality has proven very different to the hype that swayed the Senate in 2006 to pass the cloning laws (by just a single vote). No laboratory anywhere in the world has managed to obtain even a single embryonic stem cell by cloning, and scientists who previously supported this technique are now talking down its prospects.

The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday April 16, 2011 interviewed Dr Jansen and reported: “Sydney IVF is the only Australian group so far attempting somatic cell nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning with donated eggs – an even more controversial technique permitted by a 2006 review of the embryo legislation. If they succeed, and it is proving difficult, it would be a world first. Because there are newer ways of producing cloned (sic) stem cells without using eggs, Jansen concedes that therapeutic cloning may not turn out to have a big role in medicine after all.”

The ‘newer ways’ of producing ‘pluripotent’ stem cells that exactly match the patient refers to the discovery in 2007 by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka of a way of transforming a skin cell into the exact equivalent of an embryonic stem cell – but without ever using a woman’s egg or creating a human embryo, and thereby avoiding the ethical concerns. This method has proven immensely successful in obtaining the specialised stem cells that cloning failed to obtain.

Last month a leading cloning scientists in the US, Rudolph Jaenisch, also conceded that cloning has proven a failure. He told The Scientist magazine:

“Ten years ago, we talked about the potential of nuclear transfer (cloning) for therapy. But it turns out the technique was of no practical relevance. You would never do it in humans for a number of reasons. First, it’s very inefficient. With mice, that doesn’t matter because we can do hundreds of transfers to get a few mice. But human cloning is another order of magnitude more difficult than in mice.”

As the Legislative Review prepares to report to Parliament on May 27, 2011 we hope that the report acknowledges the dramatically changed scientific landscape, where the failed science of cloning has been replaced by Yamanaka’s entirely ethical technique of ‘induced pluripotent stem cell’ production.

There is public concern that the only scientist on the Review Committee is Professor Frazer, who so overstated the prospects for cloning in the lead up to the 2006 vote. There is further concern that the other prominent member of the Committee is Professor Loane Skene, who was Chair of the committee that recommended cloning to the Federal Government in 2005. There is certainly a perception of lack of balance on the Committee, given that the two dominant members are well known advocates of cloning. However, we trust that the Committee’s report will acknowledge the diminished role for cloning in the field of stem cell science, and recommend that our Parliament restore the prohibition against creating cloned human embryos solely for research and destruction.