Steve Connor: City missing out on stem-cell jackpot

Science Notebook
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The Independent Online

It is often said Britain is good at invention and basic research, but bad at developing scientific ideas to a stage where they make money and create jobs. This is especially true in genetics and molecular biology, areas littered with missed opportunities – largely because short-sighted City investors are trained in accountancy not science.

It was in the UK that Francis Crick and Jim Watson discovered the DNA double helix structure, a 1953 study that won them the Nobel Prize. The home of their discovery, in Cambridge, eventually became the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, which under the leadership of the late great Max Perutz was a byword for excellence. Perutz himself won a Nobel for work on the structure of haemoglobin. He is one of 13 on the laboratory's long list of Nobel laureates, including some of the greatest names in British science, such as Aaron Klug, Sydney Brenner and Fred Sanger. Cesar Milstein and George Kohler won the 1984 Nobel for their work on monoclonal antibodies, a breakthrough that led to medical developments worth hundreds of millions. Unfortunately, like so many other great British biological breakthroughs, the companies that saw the potential were sadly not based in the UK.

I therefore had a feeling of déjà vu this week when some of Britain's brightest stars in the new field of stem cell biology felt obliged to go public with concerns over a lack of interest from City investors. The real problem these scientists face is making that important leap from the laboratory to the first stage of a clinical trial – a costly business not covered by a university grants. For some reason City investors don't seem to get it with stem cells, unlike their counterparts in America who take the necessary gamble, and reap the richest rewards.

British can actually be best

Technology can be a baffling thing. I've just changed my internet service provider because my home broadband has failed to work, despite many long-distance conversations with robotically polite but ultimately unhelpful people in call centres in the Philippines and India. So I decided to change to BT and to my astonishment it worked first time with no problems – so far, at least. The company even seems to have engineers based in the UK, a definite plus as far as I'm concerned. Why should we support the export of British jobs abroad, which happened when Italian giant Tiscali took over the broadband customers of Pipex?

Heavy water, longer life

New Scientist reports this week that the elixir of youth has been found by a Russian scientist. It's deuterium oxide, otherwise known as heavy water – deuterium being a heavier isotope of hydrogen. Drink it, and you live longer, apparently. But this is no ordinary quack claim. It has plausible science on its side and is a testable hypothesis, the magazine claims.