UK stem-cell research needs £100m to retain world lead

Global competition is catching up, first annual meeting of researchers warns. Zoe Corbyn reports

April 10, 2008

The UK needs to invest at least an extra £100 million in stem-cell research over the next three years if it wants to continue on its current trajectory as a leader in the field.

This is the view of the UK National Stem Cell Network of researchers, which is holding its first annual conference in Edinburgh this week as debate over hybrid embryos rages (see below).

Roger Pedersen, a member of the network's steering committee and professor of regenerative medicine at the University of Cambridge, said the figure, contained in a confidential report prepared for research funders, was a stark warning. International competition in the field is increasing fast and no one can afford to be complacent if the UK is to retain its leading position, he said.

The Medical Research Council, on the back of a 30 per cent cash increase in the Comprehensive Spending Review, has just revealed an extra £15 million investment in stem-cell research over three years to fund managed programmes for translating basic discoveries into clinical practice.

Professor Pedersen welcomed the £15 million increase but said it was too early yet to know what extra sums research funders - of which the MRC is the biggest - would contribute.

"How much the MRC puts into investigator-led research will be determined by the quality and number of applications they get," he said, though he added that they were in a position to invest "certainly in the order of that recommended".

Professor Pedersen said that the threat of competition came from the US and Germany. He said California alone was investing $3 billion (£1.5 billion) over the next ten years in stem-cell research, and the US Government could also invest more heavily after the elections this year as the outgoing Bush Administration funds embryonic stem-cell research only on "lines" derived before 2001.

Germany was "poised" to invest in producing cells equivalent to human embryonic stem cells but without using embryos (induced pluripotency), he said.

Peter Andrews, a stem-cell researcher at the University of Sheffield, agreed that the UK could not afford to be complacent, but he added that it faced a challenge in how to spend vast sums effectively.

"Are there enough people with the knowledge, experience and good ideas to know what to do? One always has a concern that you could throw an awful lot of money at something and it actually doesn't go anywhere useful," he said.

The UK National Stem Cell Network's £100 million figure is based on comparing current spending with projections recommended by the 2005 Pattison report on stem-cell research, which the Government has accepted as its roadmap for future funding.

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