Can't stem progress

March 26, 2004

The UK could profit from the US' politicking with basic biomedical research, says Roger Pedersen

If you've seen the movie The Graduate, you'll remember the scene in which the financier walks over to Dustin Hoffman's character and says: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: 'Plastics'." Stem cells may be the plastics of our age. They are the building blocks of our body, the source of each of our self-renewing tissues. Skin, blood, intestines all have their own stem cells. The mother of all stem cells are the ones that can be grown from the surplus microscopic embryos generated during in vitro fertilisation for the treatment of infertility. These "embryonic" stem cells have the ability to specialise into all the tissues of our body. So far, this ability has not been confirmed for the more specialised stem cells of our adult bodies.

As the potential solution to many incurable diseases, embryonic stem cells could appeal not only to the healer, but also to the biotech investor. That could explain why I (a stem-cell researcher "transplanted from across the pond") frequently hear variations on the question: "Why is the US seemingly willing to relinquish its initiative in stem-cell research?" It is one that deserves an answer, particularly if the UK can gain the advantage in a field that will soon revolutionise medicine.

The term "revolutionary" is often appropriated for less-than-earth-shaking advances, so I should make it clear that I consider the potential impact of stem- cell medicine on a par with the industrial, silicon and biotechnology revolutions. The first of these had its origins in the UK. Embryonic stem cells were discovered here in Cambridge just over 22 years ago. The location of the previous technological revolution does not necessarily predict where the next one will take place, nor do the roots of a revolution predict where it will culminate.

Until 2001, the US had been perceived as a world leader in the stem-cell field, but it has since faltered under the burden of a volatile public policy that has kept many of its stem-cell researchers on the sidelines.

Several US stem- cell researchers have moved to the UK, where the regulatory framework allows research on human embryos and stem cells under government scrutiny and funding.

The major US agency that funds medical research, the National Institutes of Health, will spend only $11 million (£6 million) this year (a fraction of its stem-cell portfolio) on embryonic stem-cell research, devoting the rest instead to adult stem cells. This stem-cell "ice age" has not thawed in recent weeks, to judge from a recent dismissal from the President's Council on Bioethics - Elizabeth Blackburn, a renowned cell biologist who dissented with the Bush administration line by espousing the potential of embryonic stem cells above those of adult origin.

So where will the stem-cell revolution take place? California and New Jersey have begun independent state initiatives for stem-cell research that could have major impacts if they provide substantial funding.

Significant developments in stem-cell research have also occurred in Asia - for example, Korean researchers' success in generating the first embryonic stem-cell line that matches the immune system of an existing person. Such developments reflect a growing global awareness that investments in medical research can result in benefits not only to the health of patients but also to the economy.

In this context, the recent announcement by the UK government of plans for increased investment in science and innovation is good news for stem-cell research worldwide. Such investment will allow the UK to maintain and develop its existing intellectual capital in the area of biomedical research, thereby consolidating its strengths in stem-cell research. This investment will place the UK where it belongs, at the hub of an international stem-cell research enterprise, permitting the country to lead the revolution and to benefit from it.

Dustin Hoffman's graduate resisted the overture of plastics when he might have done better to resist other seductions. Better to embrace embryonic stem cells over the seductive appeal of religious fundamentalism.

Thankfully, the UK has got it right.

Roger A. Pedersen is professor of regenerative medicine and director of the Centre for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at Cambridge University.

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