12 nations unite to advance stem-cell research

July 18, 2003

The push to unlock the therapeutic potential of human stem cells has been boosted by an international effort to coordinate research.

Twelve top scientific nations, including the UK and US, have joined the International Stem Cell Forum, which will standardise research tools, benchmarks and procedures. This will allow teams in different countries to compare results on the characteristics of the cells and their possible use in tackling conditions ranging from diabetes to Parkinson's.

UK scientists are set to take a leading role. The project was established at a meeting chaired by the Medical Research Council last Friday. It will be coordinated by Peter Andrews, head of Sheffield University's Centre for Stem Cell Biology.

The MRC has already begun work on a stem-cell bank for the various lines of stem cells - each derived from separate sources around the world - that will provide raw material for scientists.

The UK government has pledged funds for stem-cell research, while the European Commission announced this week that it would provide further resources, subject to strict ethical guidelines.

The work promises a revolutionary way to repair diseased and damaged body tissues. Many scientists believe that stem cells derived from embryos have the most potential, but ethical objections to such experimentation have been raised.

Sir George Radda, the chief executive of the MRC who has championed stem-cell research in the UK, said he was pleased with the speed with which the mechanisms for global cooperation - particularly in quality control, intellectual property rights and ethics - had been put in place.

"There is a will on everybody's part to do this in a coordinated way.

International coordination will accelerate progress in research, maximising health benefits for the global public," he said.

Data gathered by scientists in the 12 countries will be posted in a registry of stem-cell lines funded by the forum. This will allow results to be compared and stimulate collaborations.

Two other key activities agreed by the forum were international practice on ethical and patenting issues. These will be collated by Canada and Australia, which will report to the forum at its next meeting, in Sweden, in January.

Professor Radda said: "We hope to map out an ethical landscape. At the moment, a German researcher funded by German funds would be acting illegally if he took part in research in the UK."

On Monday, the European Commission published proposals for ethical guidelines for its funding of stem-cell research as part of the Sixth Research Framework.

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