Key players plot rise of stem cells

January 21, 2005

Big names from science, industry and Government met privately this week to discuss how to ramp up spending on stem-cell research and thrust it into the limelight in the forthcoming general election.

Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College London and former chairman of GlaxoSmithKline, hosted a meeting at Imperial this Wednesday of heavyweight figures who have agreed to be trustees of a new stem-cell research foundation.

The inaugural meeting, which was kept low profile, included Sir Richard Branson, the multimillionaire entrepreneur; Sir Chris Evans, chair of venture capital firm Merlin Biosciences; and Lord Winston, fertility expert and television celebrity.

Lord Winston told The Times Higher before the meeting: "This is quite a formidable group of people. We will be looking at ways of getting good investment into an important research area. In broad terms, it is about making Britain internationally competitive."

The Government committed £40 million to stem-cell research in 2002.

But California plans to borrow up to $3 billion to support research in the field.

The foundation, which is the brainchild of Sir Chris, is expected to raise a considerable amount of private cash to develop potential stem-cell therapies, but the Government will be asked to make a sizeable contribution in return. This has sparked speculation that the Labour Party will seek to harness stem-cell research as a good-news story for the coming general election, in light of the storm that the issue caused in the recent US election.

Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North and chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, said: "The advance of medical research is very much part of the election campaign, and stem-cell research puts Britain in a leading position. It could win votes."

Stem-cell research was discussed at a select dinner in Westminster this week. Key figures including Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister; Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser; Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the Medical Research Council; and Dr Gibson attended the dinner after the meeting of the foundation on Wednesday.

But there is controversy about whether it is appropriate to involve Sir Richard Branson - a high-profile figure with little relevance to the science world - in the creation of the foundation.

A senior source close to the foundation said: "He is a friend of Chris Evans but I'm not sure why he is there. Putting rich people on a board like that may be counterproductive. It will make people feel it is all about money."

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