Laboratory to the world: the UK's big push on stem cells

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The Independent Online

When Gordon Brown was a student at Edinburgh University, a rugby injury left him blind in one eye. Some 35 years later, in last week's Budget, the Chancellor announced further Government support for research that could one day, in theory, repair his damaged eye.

When Gordon Brown was a student at Edinburgh University, a rugby injury left him blind in one eye. Some 35 years later, in last week's Budget, the Chancellor announced further Government support for research that could one day, in theory, repair his damaged eye.

The research is into stem cells taken from embryos usually created by in vitro fertilisation. These are unspecialised cells, each with the potential to grow into any human tissue from a heart muscle to a hair follicle. Their promise is that one day they will be injected into patients to repair damaged or diseased organs. Ultimately, they could cure all sorts of medical conditions, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Professor Alison Murdoch, who leads the research at the Centre for Life in Newcastle, said she can see scientists creating whole new organs, such as a pancreas, from stem cells in "several years".

It sounds a pipe dream, but the Government is serious about making it a reality. The UK Stem Cell Initiative - launched by Mr Brown last week - will make recommend ways to fund this research over the next 10 years. An unspecified portion of the £2.5bn allocated to biotechnology has also been set aside for stem-cell research.

Such urgency contrasts sharply with the situation in the US, which is divided between a "pro-life" camp vehemently opposed to the research and those, such as the late actor Christopher Reeve, who stress its life-saving potential. George Bush successfully fudged the issue before November's presidential election, but the British Government has no such inhibitions ahead of our own general election. Far from it: Labour wants to make the UK the world leader in stem-cell research.

In many ways, the UK is already leading. In August, Britain became the first country in Europe to approve a human cloning experiment at the Centre for Life. And the UK is already host to the world's first embryonic cell bank.

Restrictions on research in the US and elsewhere mean academics from all over the world are coming to work in the Britain. But funding is at an early stage and is limited largely to the public sector, such as university laboratories.

However, interest is stirring in the private sector. Professor Sir Chris Evans, the biotech venture capitalist who founded Merlin Biosciences, led calls last month for £100m to be raised for a new charitable foundation promoting stem-cell research. Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson and Sir Richard Sykes, the former chairman of GlaxoSmithKline, are being lined up as board members.

It is not just altruism that motivates them. Patents developed through embryonic stem-cell research could be worth billions of pounds. If this happens in the UK then, regardless of where the resulting drug is manufactured overseas, some of the revenue will end up in Treasury coffers.

"We are not unaware that the UK can benefit from it," Professor Murdoch said. "If the patent is developed in this country, then the patent will stay in this country."

But big drugs companies are not about to pour millions into stem-cell research. Aisling Burnand, the chief executive of the BioIndustry Association said: "It's too early even for venture capitalists." Some kind of public-private partnership is needed to take stem-cell research to the next level, She said.

Given the potential of stem-cell research, profit should not be the main motive. But Mr Brown is not so short-sighted that he'll miss the opportunity to ensure the UK can reap the rewards of its investment.

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