A welcome vote of confidence

What will the freedom to produce hybrid embryos mean to stem-cell research? Zoe Corbyn reports

June 12, 2008

When MPs voted last month to allow the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for research, scientists rejoiced.

The decision, which will be enshrined in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to be finalised later this year, keeps the UK at the forefront of stem-cell research. It signals that the UK is one of the most scientifically liberal but firmly regulated places for the work.

From the hybrid embryos, which combine human and animal DNA, embryonic stem cells can be extracted. The hope is that the cells can be used to help develop treatments for debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and cancer.

The hybrid embryos method - one of four types of human admixed embryos approved - allows scientists to understand the conditions and refine their approaches without using human eggs, which are scarce and a morally precious resource.

Yet with the euphoria of the legislative triumph now over and the dust beginning to settle, what does the decision mean in practice? Do funders expect to be inundated by a rush of scientists hungry for funding or will it be business as usual? Are more researchers likely to arrive on our shores? And will the decision, as some argue, slow the less ethically sensitive "induced pluripotent stem cell" (iPSC) work - in which adult stem cells are reprogrammed to mimic embryonic stem cells and dispense with the need for embryos? Three people at the front line of research share their thoughts.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

'THIS IS A POSITIVE MESSAGE TO THE WORLD'

Rob Buckle, Scientific lead on stem-cell and regenerative medicine at the Medical Research Council

The vote sends a very positive message that the UK remains a good place to be for stem-cell research.

The immediate gain is that it will maintain the confidence of overseas researchers who have come to the UK. There is a lot of money going in, but worldwide not enough leading researchers.

The commercial sector will be buoyed, too. It will see opportunities in the next stages of development because of the strength of the science and the regulatory framework. I do not see the legislation making a real difference right now to the amount of money flowing in, but it may in one or two years. (The MRC has recently increased its support.)

Only two groups are pursuing beyond research (a team at King's College London and one at Newcastle University each have a licence) and they have not been able to move forward because of the regulatory uncertainty. Until results come out of those two groups, I do not envisage a lot of activity.

Currently no one really understands which method of producing embryonic stem cells (hybrid embryos or induced pluripotent stem cells) will be the most productive to follow. The MRC wants to see both lines pursued.

'IT IS A MUCH MORE COMFORTABLE ENVIRONMENT'

Alan Schafer, Head of molecular and physiological sciences at the Wellcome Trust

This is not going to have dramatic differences in any respect immediately, but in the long term it will allow growth of an important component of stem-cell research. With the certainty we now have, I could imagine a dozen or so applications (for licences to perform the work) over the next couple of years.

It is a much more comfortable environment than in the US, where hybrid research is regulated state by state - in some instances favourably (for example in California) and in others not. People will be looking enviously to the UK saying, "Isn't it nice that they can go ahead and do it so easily".

I think the decision will have a nominal impact on iPSC (induced pluripotent stem cells) research. Research will continue into iPSC because potentially it is fruitful. Information from the hybrid method could improve it.

Whether the Wellcome Trust puts more money into the field depends on demand. If the demand is there and the scientific quality is high, we would consider putting in a specific programme with ring-fenced money.

One of our strategic committees looked at this recently, particularly as the therapeutic end of stem-cell research has not progressed as rapidly as had been hoped. The advice was that it is early days and funding is available.

We will review the situation again later in the year. Time cycles are long, but I envisage we will see some increase in applications from next year.

'CHARITIES CAN INVESTIGATE FUNDING POTENTIAL'

Simon Denegri, Chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities

Permissive legislation is important because it says the UK is favourable to this sort of work and wants scientists and funding to flow into it.

About 18 months ago, we asked our members whether they would be interested in funding this sort of work if they could. About ten charities said they would - which is significant. This includes those that have been at the forefront of the debate such as the Parkinson Disease Society and the Alzheimer's Society.

Naturally, many charity funders had been waiting to see what happened with the legislation. Now they can investigate the potential for funding more confidently, knowing that this is something that has gone through very heavy scrutiny and that the appropriate regulatory framework will be in place.

It will take a little bit of time. All will have three- to five-year research strategies in place and then set priorities year on year. It is partly about the degree of interest they promote themselves but also the degree of proactive approaches that come from the research community.

The campaign from the groups that are opposed to hybrid research was impressive in terms of the noise it made. It is a reminder to us all in the scientific community that you can't dip into public opinion every 20 years and expect to win it round, but must continue to nurture it.

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