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Government called on to define law on embryo research

University of Auckland academics are calling on the Government to investigate the lack of guidelines around the use of embryos in research which they say is restricting progress in fertility research.

They have conducted a qualitative survey of New Zealand researchers from 20 major academic, clinical, and governmental institutes, to qualify the impact these restrictions are having on New Zealand’s research outputs.

This survey reveals that New Zealand researchers feel dissatisfied with the lack of guidance from the Ministry of Health about human embryo research, and that this is a barrier to progressing scientific research in this country.

Their study, The futility of fertility research? Barriers to embryo research in New Zealand, has just been published in the New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ).

Led by Professor Cindy Farquhar of the University’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the survey has found the lack of current guidelines regarding the use of embryos for research is restricting improvements to established reproductive technologies, and any future research.

“We suggest that the Minister of Health instructs ministerial advisory committees to review the current guidelines and to define the term ‘use of embryos’,” Professor Farquhar says.

The issue is raising concerns as more than 20 per cent of New Zealanders experience infertility at some point in their lives, and more couples are turning to fertility treatment such as IVF.

Currently, the use of human embryos for human reproductive research is governed by the HART Act 2004. While the Act allows for research using human embryos, research applications must be referred to the ministerial ethics committee or the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ECART). ECART is required to base their decisions using guidelines published by the Minister of Health’s Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART). As the current guidelines developed in 2005 only allows for human embryos for research using non-viable human embryos, ECART is unable to grant ethics approval for research that uses viable human embryos. So current human embryo research that can be undertaken overseas (Australia and the United States) but not in New Zealand.

“Human embryo research cannot currently be approved by ministerial ethics committees due to a lack of specific guidelines on this issue,” Professor Farquhar says.

New Zealand researchers feel the lack of clear guidelines defining human embryo research is a barrier to progressing scientific research in this country. So research that “uses” viable human embryos that are required to be discarded after ten years cannot currently be conducted in New Zealand. This includes research that uses identical methods to clinical treatments for infertility. New Zealand’s ‘restrictive by default’ stance on the “use” of embryos for reproductive research effectively allows fertility clinics to provide reproductive treatments, while preventing all potential research projects that could improve these existing treatments.

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