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U.K. Framework Offers Stem Cells a Future

By Maureen McDonough

Aug 15, 2005 | There is little debate that stem cells represent a new frontier in biomedical research. But even if stem cells have the potential to advance medical science and produce new therapies, progress is often hindered by questions of ethics, legislation, and funding. The United Kingdom, however, has managed to cut through the noise, creating a regulatory framework that fosters an environment of international collaboration and excellent R&D programs. And they try to do it all in an ethical way.


Category: Knowledge Management
and Collaboration
Title: Best Practices in Stem Cell
Innovation in the UK: A Global Model
Organization: UK Trade & Investment

The UK Trade & Investment, the British government’s international business development agency, has been instrumental in promoting stem cell innovation, fostering the growth of several startup companies and research organizations. “The future of the entire health sciences arena is essentially being dictated by the advances that are resulting from the model that the U.K. government has established through its unambiguous, robust, and ethical policy on stem cells,” says Stefan Winkler, vice consul science and technology for New England, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

The crown jewel of the regulatory framework is the public stem cell bank, established in May 2004 to the tune of $4.7 million. The first of its kind, the bank is a repository for scientists to deposit adult, embryonic, and fetal stem cell lines. The facility, located at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control in Potters Bar, England, currently houses more than 20 cell lines.

This number would increase significantly when the Harvard Stem Cell Institute banks all of its cell lines, created by co-founder Doug Melton and colleagues, as it is now doing. This prospective collaboration underscores the prospective role of the UK Stem Cell Bank as a resource for scientists across the globe and could put the United Kingdom at the center of stem cell innovation.

Before stem cells can be banked, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) must approve the cell lines. To receive an endorsement, scientists must submit an application prior to creating the stem cell line, explaining the methods to be used and the reasons for conducting the research. A panel that represents “a cross section of society” reviews each application and assesses the scientific, ethical, and social challenges the project presents, Winkler says.

The stem cell bank not only ensures that scientists have high-quality starting materials for their research but also may ease some of the tensions surrounding embryonic stem cells. By having a centralized source of stem cells, individual research teams do not need to develop their own cell lines, reducing the number of embryos destroyed.

The U.K. government began dedicating resources to create a progressive policy nearly a decade ahead of the rest of the world. HFEA was established in the early 1990s to monitor all embryo research and has evolved to meet scientists’ demands. The policies were updated in 2001 to allow therapeutic cloning research, so long as scientists applied for the appropriate license. “Sure, it’s bureaucratic,” Winkler says, “but you know exactly what you’re dealing with.”

Growing Companies
The U.K. government is currently funding a $70-million multidisciplinary research program to capitalize on British scientists’ technical and conceptual advances. The goal is to create an environment where innovation and new technologies are supported, knowledge transfer occurs, and barriers to investment in R&D are lowered. In addition, the U.K. government has pledged to increase its science and technology budget by $1.86 billion over the next decade. This is part of a plan to increase public and private spending on R&D in the United Kingdom to 2.5 percent of the GDP.

The United Kingdom has begun to see a return on its investment. At Queen Victoria Hospital, stem cells are being used to redevelop corneas. The work has already restored the eyesight of 40 patients. Among the research organizations supported by the U.K. government are the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh (the birthplace of Dolly the sheep), which now focuses on human embryonic stem cells; the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Sheffield; the Institute for Stem Cell Research at the University of Edinburgh; and the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at Cambridge University.

Several companies have also sprung from the investment in basic research. CereStem Ltd. commercializes the findings of Stephen Minger, a researcher at King’s College London, and ReInnervate is a University of Durham spin-off that has established intellectual property related to neural stem cells.

“By setting the gold standard in stem cell policy, the U.K. government has set the stage for technological stem cell innovation around the world and is fostering an environment where the future of global biomedicine can thrive,” says Winkler.

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