Will Britain buy a therapeutic cell?

February 25, 2000

Ayala Ochert reports on the row over the future of stem cell research in the United Kingdom.

For a fee of $5,000, researchers can get two vials of a tightly controlled substance. The American suppliers say that, handled properly, this is an unlimited supply. The vials are not filled with illicit drugs - they contain cultured embryonic stem cells.

ES cells are derived from early embryos, and they are coveted because of their ability to develop into any cell of the human body. The announcement by University of Wisconsin researcher James Thomson in 1998 that he had found a way of growing human ES cells in the lab caused great excitement. The hope is that once scientists learn to coax ES cells into becoming brain cells or heart cells, they may be used to treat Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other illnesses.

Only a handful of researchers - all funded by the US biotech company Geron - have access to these precious cells. But that is about to change as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which shares the patent with Geron, has decided to share its bounty with researchers worldwide.

Whether British researchers get to be a part of this biomedical bonanza is up to chief medical officer Liam Donaldson and his panel of appointed experts. Donaldson's panel was set up in the wake of the December 1998 report of the joint committee of the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority on human cloning.

That committee came out against human "reproductive cloning" - the creation of a cloned person - but recommended support for "therapeutic cloning". Unprepared for such conclusions, last August the government ordered Donaldson to look more closely at therapeutic cloning.

Many scientists were outraged by the government's procrastination. Fertility pioneer Robert Winston, of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London, says: "They seem frightened of the right-to-life groups. If you could use tissue from one human embryo to save hundreds of lives, there must be a moral imperative to do itI" Lord Winston also warned that Britain risked losing some of its best scientists to countries where such research is allowed. The Roslin Institute in Aberdeen, which developed techniques for cloning mammals, was recently bought by Geron. Now called Geron BioMed, it would be in a unique position to develop therapeutic cloning, but it may be forced to move to the United States - where biomedical research in private companies is largely unregulated - if Britain continues to ban such research.

The UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act approves embryo research only for "infertility, congenital disease, miscarriage, contraception and the detection of abnormalities", so any work on ES cells would require a change in the law. But if they choose to, British researchers can apply to Wisconsin for cells, because the HFEA does not regard the cells themselves as embryos. Donaldson's committee could close that loophole and recommend no research on ES cells at all. Or it could go to the other way and give the go-ahead to "therapeutic cloning".

Austin Smith, a developmental biologist at the University of Edinburgh, believes that is what the committee will do.

If he is right, then Britain will become a hub of international research. If not, says Leeds University fertility researcher Roger Gosden, "this nascent field will be squashed and it will never flower in Britain".

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