Brussels, 09 Feb 2005
A group of scientists and entrepreneurs in the UK has called for the creation of a charitable foundation to promote and fund stem cell research nationwide.
The proposed foundation would have a board of trustees comprising well known figures such as the Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson; fertility expert and television personality Lord Robert Winston; president of the Royal Society and former UK Chief Scientist Lord Robert May; and geneticist and best-selling author Professor Steve Jones. It is hoped that these UK household names would be able to raise substantial funds.
The group is now in discussions with the government on how such a foundation could be created. A chief concern is that any new funding raised by the foundation does not replace existing investment.
The proposal comes amid concerns that the UK is slipping from its leading position in stem cell research. The country 'pioneered this entire field, but now we are sliding backwards somewhat, as others accelerate ahead,' one of the leading figures behind the proposal, Professor Sir Chris Evans, told the BBC. 'You see big breakthroughs from China, Korea, Japan and in Germany; and there is a wall of money surfacing in the USA.'
Many scientists believe that stem cell research has huge potential, and could lead to therapies for currently incurable diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's. Such research is controversial, however, particularly when it involves cells taken from embryos.
The UK has some of the most liberal laws on research using embryos, as illustrated by a decision announced on 8 February to award funding for the cloning of early stage human embryos for the study of motor neuron disease.
While the majority of research proposals addressing stem cell research would involve creating cloned embryos in order to investigate whether new tissues can be grown and used to repair damaged body parts, this project is different. Instead of growing healthy tissue, lead researcher Professor Ian Wilmut, known throughout the world for cloning Dolly the sheep in 1996, will deliberately clone embryos that have motor neuron disease from patients with the condition.
Defending the decision to award funding for the project, Angela McNab, Chief Executive of the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) said: 'We recognise that motor neuron disease is a serious congenital condition. Following careful review of the medical, scientific, legal and ethical aspects of this application, we felt it was appropriate to grant the Roslin Institute a one-year licence for this research into the disease.'
Cells from the embryos will be used to study how the disease progresses, and also for testing new drugs. The disease is caused by the death of cells that control movement in the brain and spinal cord. There is currently no cure for the disease, which is estimated to affect around 100,000 people in Europe and the US. In the UK, half of those with the condition die within 14 months of diagnosis.