'You would barely know adult stem cells exist'

Newcastle specialist quits UK for France, citing undue focus on embryo research, writes Zoe Corbyn

October 23, 2008

A renowned British stem-cell expert is to leave the UK to pursue his research in France, claiming that there is insufficient support for his work here.

Colin McGuckin, professor of regenerative medicine at Newcastle University and an expert in adult stem cells, this week hit out at both his university and UK funding agencies. He said that they were prioritising embryonic stem-cell research above work with adult stem cells, despite the more immediate clinical benefits offered by his work.

Professor McGuckin plans to leave for the University of Lyon in January, taking a research team of about ten from Newcastle, including his research partner Nico Forraz. He will open the world's biggest institute devoted to cord blood and adult stem-cell research at Lyon.

Professor McGuckin is the UK's leading scientist working on stem cells derived from babies' umbilical cord blood. This method of extraction yields cells similar to embryonic stem cells, but is far less controversial because no embryo is destroyed in the process. Professor McGuckin, a Catholic, pioneered this method with colleagues in 2005, and has used the cells to grow liver tissue.

Speaking exclusively to Times Higher Education, he said he was leaving because he had to put his patients and staff first. "The bottom line is my vocation is to work with patients and help patients and unfortunately I can't do that in the UK." He said France offered a "much better environment" both to "cure and treat more people" and to "do good work".

He said that France had kept a "much more reasoned balance" between supporting adult and embryonic stem-cell research, unlike the UK, which had focused on embryonic research to the detriment of adult stem-cell research.

"(France) is very supportive of adult stem cells because they know that these are the things that are in the clinic right now and will be more likely in the clinic," he said. "A vast amount of money in the UK from the Government has gone into embryonic stem-cell research with not one patient having being treated, to the detriment of (research into) adult stem cells, which has been severely underfunded."

He also criticised the attention embryonic stem cells received over the past year from academics, the media, Parliament and his university. "You would barely know that adult stem cells exist at Newcastle," he said.

It is not the first time Newcastle has experienced a "brain drain" of top stem-cell researchers to the Continent. Professor McGuckin joined Newcastle after his predecessor Miodrag Stojkovic took his pioneering work on stem cells to Spain in 2006.

Professor McGuckin criticised the university for not giving him the support he needed in his research. He said there was a lack of laboratory space and claimed that he had been forced to turn down a £10 million investment because the business development department "could not get it together".

Does the UK spend too much on embryonic stem-cell research%3F
The amount the Medical Research Council spends on stem-cell research has increased, although the proportion going to adult stem-cell research (including umbilical) has dropped.
YearTotal MRC spend% on adult stem-cell research (including umbilical)% on embryonic stem-cell research
2002-03£4.5mNo split available 
2003-04£14.5mNo split available 
2004-05£14.1m51.548.5
2005-06£17.4m43.656.4
2006-07£23.6m46.054.0
Source: MRC

Failure to reach agreement

He said he had to put more than £1.8 million of grant funding on hold because there was nowhere to do the work. "I kept getting told our situation would get better but it never did," he said.

Responding to the criticisms, Chris Day, pro vice-chancellor for the faculty of medical sciences at Newcastle, said he was disappointed and surprised that Professor McGuckin had not raised his concerns directly with the university. He said that the university took issue with each of the points the professor had raised.

A statement from the university says it has been negotiating to ensure bigger and better facilities for academics, and expansion plans are now in place. It says the business department held "extensive negotiations" with Professor McGuckin over the ownership of a company he wanted to set up, but agreement could not be reached. "We received no offer of a £10 million investment from a third party so we cannot comment further on this issue," the statement says.

The group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core), which opposes embryonic stem-cell research, said the loss of Professor McGuckin would create a "huge hole" in Newcastle's research portfolio.

Both the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust said they funded the best proposals across all areas, whether adult, umbilical or embryonic. A spokesman for the UK National Stem Cell Network said was it was "misleading" to claim that expenditure on embryonic stem-cell research was overshadowing adult research.

But other adult stem-cell researchers agreed with Professor McGuckin that there was a need for more balanced research support.

"We desperately need more funding for adult stem-cell research because with these cells we really can make a difference to patients' lives, and we can do it now, not in ten years' time as is promised for embryonic stem cells," said Anthony Hollander, a professor of rheumatology and tissue engineering at the University of Bristol.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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