US pours cash into UK bank

March 8, 2002

THES reporters look at global developments in stem-cell research and legislation.

Millions of charity dollars raised in the United States are to back British embryonic stem-cell (es-cell) research in a bid to find a cure for type 1 diabetes.

The US-based Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation is supporting plans for the world's first stem-cell bank to be set up in the United Kingdom and has joined a funders' forum alongside UKresearch councils and charities such as the Wellcome Trust and the Parkinson's Disease Society.

The JDRF's decision underlines the growing gulf between research strategies on either side of the Atlantic in a field that could revolutionise medicine. Business dominates US research, and federal regulations restrict public-funded science to just a few dozen human cell lines.

By contrast, in the wake of the House of Lords inquiry, UK scientists enjoy one of the most supportive working climates in the world and the promise of generous funding.

A multimillion-pound initiative to create a national network of research units is being considered as part of the government's comprehensive spending review. And the Wellcome Trust is expected to announce major grants for stem-cell science shortly.

It is thought that David Beach, head of cell proliferation at the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, University College London, will be among the first researchers to receive support from the charity for a probe into the genomics of stem cells.

Robert Goldstein, the JDRF's chief scientific officer, believes investment in the cell bank and ensuing research could develop promising preliminary work into a cure for juvenile diabetes, building on a study that has seen es-cells turned into potentially transplantable insulin-secreting islet cells.

The cell bank will offer access to cultured cell lines without commercial restrictions.

"The UK promises an opportunity to have stem-cell lines distributed in the public interest with data that can be freely distributed," Dr Goldstein said. "We're looking forward to partnering with the Medical Research Council and we're prepared to put up millions to accomplish this task."

The UK's stem-cell initiative is being spearheaded by the Medical, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences research councils.

The MRC is looking at their clinical potential. The BBSRC is focusing on the fundamental science while maintaining its interest in cloning technology.

Alf Game, head of genetics and biochemistry at the BBSRC, said the research councils were seeking significant resources in the spending review. They want to establish more centres around the UK to spur stem-cell research. Among them could be a new MRC centre to explore the application of stem-cell therapies in neuroscience.

"At the moment we have got an almost unique situation in the UK with a favourable legislative framework and some of the world leaders in the field," said Dr Game. "But sooner or later, unless we invest fast, other countries will catch up."

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