Government asked to sanction foetus sale

Aborted New Zealand foetuses have become a sought-after product in a controversial international biotechnology market.

A Weekend Herald investigation has revealed that Wellington's district health board stood to make money out of providing tissue from aborted foetuses to a Dutch company, Crucell.

Capital and Coast Health Board pulled out of the deal last week following Weekend Herald inquiries into its application to the Wellington Regional Ethics Committee to take the tissue for the production of vaccines against HIV, Ebola and other viral diseases.

This week it emerged Crucell was interested in New Zealand because it had been identified as one of only four countries that can provide a source of foetal tissue clean of mad cow disease contamination

Despite the knockback, the company has not decided whether to give up on New Zealand.

Health professionals believe other companies also will want New Zealand foetuses and that the Ministry of Health needs to remove an ethical and legal black hole on the issue.

"I'm looking for clear guidelines to come from the ministry to govern this sort of research," said the board's general manager of hospital and health services, Dr John Coughlan.

I'm sure others could be approached in the future."

A book last year, Body Bazaar: the Market for Human Tissue in a Biotechnology Age, revealed the extent of the trade in body parts and put the price of organs at between $10,000 and $20,000.

In what would have been the first known case of New Zealand foetuses being used for commercial purposes, Capital and Coast Health would have profited by providing the tissue to Crucell, listed on New York's Nasdaq technology stock index.

"If the project had been approved, the money would have gone into a trust fund that would have been used to fund other research," said Dr Coughlan. He said it was not "huge amounts of money".

Asked about the appropriateness of it, Dr Coughlan said he would like to see what the ministry's position would be.

The ministry's deputy director-general, Dr Gillian Durham, said a review of how human tissue was used for research was under way and a discussion paper would be released this year.

The Capital and Coast Health application to the ethics committee was ditched when Dr Coughlan learned details and was told there were no guidelines covering the use of foetal tissue.

Dr Coughlan said that with the benefit of hindsight the application should not have been lodged. The application was made by John Tait, who is a clinical consultant in the hospital and has a private practice in obstetrics and gynaecology.

Herald Feature: Health