Tuesday, November 07, 2006
WHEN Alexander Fleming discovered the potential of penicillin as an antibiotic in 1928, there were sceptics in the medical world who said it would never work.
It is enough to say penicillin became one of the most significant medical discoveries of the 20th century and Fleming became one of the most important scientists of any age.
Today, 78 years later, arguments are raging about the potential importance of stem cell research.
Debate began this week in the Senate on legislation which, if passed, will lift restrictions on therapeutic cloning - removing DNA from an embryo and replacing it with adult genetic material.
Potentially, the embryo will grow and be harvested as human material used in a variety of medical procedures. The issue is simple. Should this research proceed or be outlawed?
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone says research must go ahead. But another South Australian, Senator Nick Minchin, has described the research as "repugnant and thoroughly unethical and objectionable".
The debate on stem cell research too often founders on emotion rather than fact and potential benefit. We are not talking about creating clones. This is not a debate about Dr Jekyll creating Mr Hyde.
It is a debate about whether controlled, conservative stem-cell research may find the key to a cure for such diseases as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease.
These and other debilitating diseases are becoming more prevalent as Australia's population ages.
The decision that must be made in Canberra is whether, for reasons of medical ethics, religious conviction or fear of the unknown, this research is scrapped, or whether, as with Fleming, medical science is allowed to explore uncharted waters.
By legitimising stem-cell research, medical research just might find the cure to so many modern and "incurable" diseases.
By outlawing this research, an opportunity may be lost.