BioWorld International Correspondent

SYDNEY, Australia - BresaGen Ltd. has weighed in on the fierce debate on embryo stem cell research in Australia by announcing that it has used its technology to create dopamine-producing neural cells from human embryo stem cells.

The announcement by Adelaide-based BresaGen's medical director, Chris Juttner, at the Australian Stem Cell Summit held in Melbourne last week attracted little attention from the media.

Instead, most of the media focus on the summit was on a speech in which in vitro fertilization pioneer Alan Trounson described members of the Catholic Church as "hypocrites" for trying to block research using embryos discarded during IVF procedures.

The summit is part of the public discussion leading up to the Parliamentary debate over a federal law regulating the harvesting of stem cells from discarded embryos. The discussion continued this week at another summit in Sydney, with both sides flying in U.S. experts to supplement the considerable local expertise (Australian scientists have been among the leaders in IVF research).

The proponents of the "no" case are calling on medical ethicist William Hurlbut, a professor at Stanford University and a member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics. Supporters of the "yes" case are bringing in key U.S. researcher Catherine Verfaillie.

When the legislation is put to a vote in Parliament the government has promised a "conscience vote," meaning that individual members of Parliament will be permitted to vote as they see fit and not along the normally strict party lines.

Despite all this apparent fuss, the stem cell debate does not hold the same political implications and problems as it does in the U.S. or in parts of Europe. Abortion on demand has been legally tolerated in Australia for many years and rarely surfaces as a public issue.

BresaGen President and CEO John Smeaton said that he was "surprised" that his company's announcement of its work on one of the four established stem cell lines did not get more attention, as he considered the announcement significant.

He said that his company had previously shown it could create neural cells from mouse embryo cells using a proprietary growth medium, referred to as MED II, extracted from the culture of a particular human liver cell line. But it has shown that the same technology can be used first on primate cells and now on human embryo stem cells.

He said the work would be further developed to meet FDA standards. In addition, the neural cells are being evaluated using rat models to establish their survival, safety and functionality.

The eventual aim will be to develop commercially viable cell therapy treatment for conditions such as Parkinson's disease, stroke and spinal cord injury.

The announcement is better news for BresaGen, which recently announced that a collaborative agreement with British Biotech plc, of Slough, UK, to develop E21R, a GM-CSF antagonist, as a treatment for acute myeloid leukemia was abandoned due to poor results from a clinical trial.

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