Stem-cell exile raises hopes

September 6, 2002

Just over a year ago, Roger Pedersen moved into his new office on the edge of Cambridge.

The arrival of another scientist amid the sprawl of laboratories on the Addenbrooke's site would not normally attract attention. But Dr Pedersen was different.

Not only was the energetic American a pioneer in stem-cell science, but he had also quit the University of California at San Francisco, a top US university, to take up the post.

Leading figures in UK science could scarcely contain their glee: here was evidence that brain drain could become brain gain with improved research funding and a more liberal legislative regime.

Twelve months on and there has been no stampede to the hitherto unfashionable side of the Atlantic. But it seems the optimism engendered by Dr Pedersen's arrival was not misplaced.

Beyond the symbolism and before the science - Dr Pedersen does not expect to publish his first UK paper before the end of the year - it seems that Cambridge University's new recruit is having a catalytic effect on his new colleagues.

Some 25 academic groups with £30 million in research funding between them have joined the newly formed Cambridge stem cell consortium and 25 others have affiliated.

Dr Pedersen is in no doubt as to the importance of this initiative. He is convinced that a better understanding of the humble stem cell will provide myriad therapies for previously untreatable ailments.

"It is a war on disease and every year we postpone it, many thousands of people die needlessly," Dr Pedersen said.

Furthermore, he believes it may ultimately change the way we view the human being - as something more akin to a series of dynamic processes, an organism continually rebuilt by its stem cells rather than the one-dimensional product of its static genome.

The stem cell's potency lies in its ability to develop into the various specialist cell types found in the human body. They could give us a way to replace failing cells in diseased individuals.

Dr Pedersen has focused his efforts on the embryo and how stem cells are ultimately transformed into a cellular organism. This process is controlled by chemical cues that he hopes will teach him how to direct the differentiation of the stem cells and their subsequent proliferation.

"We should listen to the embryo - it is a good teacher," Dr Pedersen said.

Yet there are many who find the use of embryos in research abhorrent. In the US, the pro-life lobby has stymied such work for two decades. Dr Pedersen weathered raised expectations and crushing disappointments as public funding for such work repeatedly failed to materialise.

Although he was once backed by the US biotech corporation Geron, he is suspicious of private involvement, so when his last hope of getting public funding died in April last year, he looked to the UK.

Here, legislation had been passed specifically to encourage stem-cell science. Dr Pedersen admitted to being "captivated by the level of debate" during a parliamentary briefing on the matter. So three decades at UCSF came to an end.

Dr Pedersen is still putting together a team in Cambridge with £1 million from the Medical Research Council.

"There's a sense of being in the right place at the right time, to do something that's almost beyond our imagination," he said.

Leading Cambridge scientists such as Jim Smith, chairman of the Wellcome Cancer Research UK Institute, Anne McLaren and Azim Surani are backing the newly formed consortium.

Dr Pedersen said he was happy to be the speck around which everything was crystallising, although he observed: "Crystals don't form in distilled water."

When the Wellcome institute moves home in the not-too-distant future, the old building, including the laboratory where Martin Evans discovered stem cells, will be turned over to members of the consortium. It will spearhead the university's bid to become a world leader in the field.

Meanwhile, the MRC is to announce details of a national stem-cell bank to supply researchers with material and will soon learn whether a major bid for government research funding has been approved.

Dr Pedersen is keen to recruit more Americans, but he notes that the first federal funds for human embryonic stem-cell research reached US scientists in June, a move some feel was prompted by his departure. This might forestall a mass exodus, but Dr Pedersen is cautious as to its long-term impact. Smiling, he said: "I have to say that I'm glad to be here."

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