Firms 'may try to use Asia as testing ground'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2001, 12:00am

Asian countries risk being the targets of unethical companies unable to test their research on humans at home, experts in reproductive biology warned yesterday.

They said urgent legislation was needed to prevent research that was ethically wrong and in some cases, unnecessary. Companies, mostly American, were overstepping the divide between right and wrong for profit and calling it scientific research.

The US Government's denouncement of cloning puts US companies involved in embryo research in a bind. Washington has banned the use of federal funds for human-cloning research and is rushing to ban all forms of cloning. Companies therefore are looking to countries with legal loopholes, such as Thailand, Indonesia and Australia.

The experts said cash dangled before Third World nations was often all the incentive needed to push ethical considerations aside.

Reproductive technology veteran Peter McCullagh, who helped draw up Australia's guidelines on medical ethics, said Thais were a prime target. A few years ago they had been used as guinea pigs in the testing of HIV drugs on unborn babies with the disease. Such testing would have been banned in the US.

Dr McCullagh, a research fellow at Sydney University and previously a researcher for 35 years at the John Curtin School of Medicine at the Australian National University in Canberra, said Australia was also in the firing line due to a lack of legislation in some states that health ministers were attempting to correct. The states of Queensland and Tasmania had so far no laws banning such tests - despite national ethical guidelines to the contrary.

Britain does not ban such tests but is racing to outlaw implanting the embryos in women. American researchers are eyeing carrying on their work there. One prominent US researcher has already said he is relocating to Cambridge University, while another has threatened to do so.

'Every decade for the last five or six decades you can find an instance of some major trial being worked up by American researchers . . . but done on someone else,' Dr McCullagh said.

He called Advanced Cell Technology's achievement predictable and did not think it was a breakthrough like Dolly the sheep, but rather a continuation of work that had already been started.

'I don't think that one should be treating human individuals, whether they're embryos or teenagers or elderly people, in that way,' he said.

'Some people would say that it's different if it's an embryo or a foetus or even an infant after three months - it doesn't have any full entitlements so that's all right. But from a practical point of view it's a very hard line to draw.'

Reproductive biologist John Hearn, a professor and deputy vice-chancellor of research at Australian National University, also cast doubt on the claimed breakthrough.

'One would want to check the facts very carefully,' he said. 'There are so many claims for cloning of this and cloning of that and you end up finding that it's just some sort of variation of in vitro fertilisation.'

Professor Hearn questioned whether cloning humans was a scientific necessity and provided scientific advancement.

'It's already been shown in animals that animal embryos are very damaged through the cloning process,' he said.