Top health scientists join new brain drain

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The Independent Online
SOME of Britain's best biomedical researchers are leaving Cambridge University this summer as poor salaries and lack of research funds tempt scientists to join an accelerating brain drain.

Research into nutrition, Alzheimer's disease, tranquillisers with fewer side-effects and preserving tissues for organ transplants will all suffer.

A distinguished team of researchers studying Alzheimer's disease is going to work for a United States company.

Dr Michael Sofroniew confirmed last week that he and his team from Cambridge's anatomy department are moving to the Somatix biotechnology company in San Francisco. He said that if the Government did not increase university salaries only people with private means would be able to pursue scientific research.

In addition to Dr Sofroniew's group, senior scientists from the Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology and the Cryobiology Group, funded by the Medical Research Council, have moved to well-paid research posts in Germany, Canada and the US. Had they stayed in Britain, these researchers - trained at taxpayers' expense - would have faced redundancy within months.

Fears have also been expressed that the internationally renowned Dunn Nutrition Unit might suffer a 20 per cent budget cut as a result of a confidential review by the Medical Research Council.

When Dr Sofroniew and his colleagues start work at Somatix, one aspect of their research will be examining ways of genetically engineering nerve cells to produce chemicals called growth factors. Somatix hopes that these could help to repair the damage inflicted by degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, giving it a leading edge in producing treatments for this disease.

In addition to his work at the department of anatomy, Dr Sofroniew was a member of the management committee of Cambridge's new Centre for Brain Repair. Last week it was announced that the centre would be home to a research team studying multiple sclerosis. Dr Sofroniew's departure will hit efforts to attract new researchers to work at the centre.

Somatix has told Dr Sofroniew he will be able to recruit up to 30 more researchers in San Francisco over the next two years. His contract runs from 1 August but he has promised to divide his time between Cambridge and California for the next academic year.

He said he was sorry to leave the brain research centre - which he thought was 'an exciting project' - but consideration for his family had prompted his move. 'I do not live extravagantly. I do not want to deny my kids the things that I had as a child,' said Dr Sofroniew, who is in his late thirties.

His university salary is pounds 24,000, including pounds 2,000 from his college. His income will triple when he goes to California. His salary from the private company is equivalent to those of US university researchers.

If the Government continued with its funding strategy it 'will turn scientific posts back into the domain of the independently wealthy', he said.