On the Frontier of the Bio-tech Boom

On 22 June, Steve Bracks, his Minister for State and Regional Development, John Brumby, and nigh on 140 techno-scientific fellow-travellers headed out to the Biotech 2001 trade fair in San Diego to sell Victoria as the biotechnological place to be. Hopes were high that they would attract significant venture capital investment. The day before they left, Bracks and Brumby proudly, and with fortuitous timing, announced a $100 million investment in Australia’s first synchrotron, to be built on the perimeter of Monash University’s Clayton campus. B1 and B2 believe it will boost the biotech investment attractions of Victoria and were united in singing the praises of the biotechnological revolution for the benefits it will bring to health, humanity and the state’s coffers. Much to Peter Beattie’s chagrin, en route to the same trade fair to sell Queensland as the centre of Australian biotechnology, he realised his claim had been jumped. New South Wales didn’t deign to join the rush.

Why did this story only cause a ripple in the news, and only break two days before they left? Do you remember being asked for your opinion about having Victoria positioned ‘by 2010 as one of the world’s top five locations for biotechnology research, development, commercialisation, production and marketing’, or being informed about the kind of research that is encompassed in Victoria’s Biotechnology Strategic Development Draft Plan?

According to Greens Senate candidate Scott Kinnear, if you were in the biotech industry your company may have received a copy of the plan, or you may have seen the advertisement placed in the Australian Biotechnology Journal. If you had somehow come across the Victorian government’s press release of 6 April you could have asked to look at the copy sent to your municipal council, or known to request one from the Department of State and Regional Development. If you had been very observant you may have noticed the single advertisement placed in the Age on 18 April 2001 informing you of the existence of the draft plan, and the call for comment on it by 30 April 2001. Given that the ad appeared between Easter and Anzac Day that would have given you six working days to obtain, read and respond to the document through the mail, or if you have web access (www.technology.vic.gov.au) to download it and do the same. If you had gone to the web-site, you would have found with it a prospectus outlining how the Victorian government intends to foster the commercialisation of biotechnologies and an analysis of the Australian companies trading in them on the Deloitte Biotech Index. But it’s clear that if you were as observant as that, you didn’t have any reservations: a senior public servant told Kinnear that few submissions were received by the closing date, and virtually none opposing it. But then he was also told, by the Chief of Staff for the Victorian Minister for Agriculture and John Brumby’s advisor, that the document was in fact produced with an overseas market in mind as a promotional teaser for the Premier and friends to hand out to attract investors in San Diego.

It was a very short timeline to call for comment, and receive and collate feedback before the Premier headed out, which explains the lack of response. But this does not explain why NGOs with significant interests in biotechnology did not receive direct notice of the draft plan, or the relative narrowness of those who did. Why is this so disturbing? If silence is taken to be assent, then the plan is no longer a draft, it is potentially policy.

Interviewed for Channel Nine News in San Diego, framed by pseudo dot-painting banners and under pressure from critics attending the concurrent ‘Beyond Bio-devastation 2001’ conference, Bracks tried to deflect such concerns by stating that he saw Victoria’s biotechnological strength as being in medical rather than agricultural research. Should that make us feel any easier? Certainly, within the Draft Plan there is a wide variety of medical research projects mentioned — including embryonic stem-cell research. This research is currently at the heart of the deliberations of House of Representatives Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee into Human Cloning, which is about to hand down its findings. If the committee recommends, as Ian Henderson reports (‘Green light for embryo research’, Australian, 2 July 2001), allowing the continuation of embryonic stem cell research but avoiding addressing whether it ‘should actually be permitted’ they will be compounding a reluctance to adequately publicly address and debate its ramifications — as the Infertility Act allowed it to proceed in the first place. And the Australian Health Ethics Committee avoids addressing it directly: it doesn’t yet have a position on this research (Hansard, 7 June 2001) — just as the Bracks Government seems to be reluctant to address and publicly debate the issues inherent in biotechnology in general.

The most advanced research in this field in Australia is being carried out in Victoria at the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development. They work in the spaces of the imprecise wording of the Victorian Infertility Act (1995). The Act refuses to permit the destruction of human embryos to garner stem cells, but silently allows the importation of stem cells that have already been removed from embryos. This research went ahead on embryonic stem cells imported from an IVF program in Singapore, with careful reference to its legality and in consultation with Monash University’s ethics body, but with no public consultation, no open ethical debate. In other words, they experiment on embryos that have been cut up before export to Australia.

In the initial excitement of succeeding in redirecting the growth of these cells into nerve cells, statements were made about being able to create organs for transplantation that would not cause rejection. We were told that as a country we should act quickly to secure our place in the biotech market. Gradually, this was modified to claims that cells could be grown to transplant and generate re-growth: growing whole organs would take too long to help a critical transplant patient. It now becomes clear that much more work needs to be done before embryonic stem-cell lines are successful universal donors even at a cellular level: and, unfortunately, they tend to die when exposed to existing anti-rejection drugs. Proponents now admit that in the first instance a process that they euphemistically referred to as therapeutic cloning will be necessary to create stem cells appropriate to a given patient. Therapeutic cloning involves cloning body tissue without implanting and creating a whole individual. And still there is no debate.

While the ethical debates lie unaddressed, scientists work hard to normalise their research and continue to expand its boundaries. When interviewed by the Senate Committee on 1 March 2000, Professor Alan Trounson stated that he and his team at Monash, having imported the embryonic tissue required for their research from Singapore and successfully derived stem-cell lines from it, would never need to acquire another dissected embryo. In order to satisfy National Institute of Health guidelines to apply for funding to continue their research, they may need to re-derive those embryonic stem-cell lines to fit the NIH’s protocols, but it would require perhaps eight embryos to do so. In a submission to the same committee, in May 2001, ES Cell International Pty Ltd — the private company which funds Trounson’s work — admitted that the researchers at the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development had in fact, in the intervening year, used twelve embryos to create six cell lines. In other words, the researchers keep taking incremental steps to push the possibilities of embryo experimentation further and further. At that stage they claimed there would be no need to re-derive further stem-cell lines — that is, unless there proved to be a genetic reason to do so, such as the lines they had, not being universal donors. Then they would need to derive lines from further embryos to suit a range of genetic groups.

In the Australian on 3 July 2001, following immediately on speculation that the Senate Committee would recommend allowing embryo dissection to create stem cell lines in this country, Trounson staked a claim on the 400 or so ‘excess’ embryos that are not used in IVF clinics in Australia each year. If researchers had access to them, they could derive sufficient stem cell lines, with a wide variety of antigens, to avoid the rejection of tissues once transplanted. They might need to use therapeutic cloning to create some of those stem cell lines, but then they would never need to use therapeutic cloning again …

All the while patent applications are pending.

With embryonic stem-cell research now well under way, the infrastructure in place, and start-up companies applying for patents for their ‘innovations’, the minimal debate that surfaces is polarised between right-wing anti-abortion lobbyists and utilitarian bio-ethicists. They are bound in a perpetual counterpoint of competing ethics of rights, an embryo’s right to life against an ailing or avaricious person’s right to live, indefinitely. Rights discourse is inadequate to the task of dealing with the complexity of the issues raised by this biotechnology. Embryos miscarry, hearty as well as ailing people die: life is fragile and precious, but nobody lives forever. Nor should they. The problem is that at base, embryonic stem-cell technology challenges what it is to be human, alienating us from ourselves and others, abstracting us from embodied, gendered, relational experience. It undermines the interconnectedness of social relations intrinsic to embodiment.

My previous allusions to the gold rush — ‘staking claims’ and the like — are not ingenuous. In the mad scramble for wealth in Victoria in the mid-nineteenth century, little thought, if any, was given to what was being torn apart in the process: indigenous peoples’ lands that were and are intimately connected to their bodies, their existence. Fictitious, unstable values were assigned to lumps of soft yellow metal torn out of living landscapes. How different is biotech-fever from gold-fever or dot.com fever? We now have a biotechnology index, a new NASDAQ. And one of the new territories ripe for excavation, commodification and consumption, is us. If we uncritically accept biotechnology, under the guise of supporting the creation and proliferation of knowledge, or allow our governments to defer ethical debate indefinitely, we invite the patenting and commercialisation of ourselves.

Kate Cregan is a research fellow in politics at Monash University

Categorised: Against the Current

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