London conference hears how UK is emerging as the natural "home" for stem cell research
September 12, 2002
By Pat Hagan
The UK is fast becoming "the obvious home" for stem cell research because it has the right mix of tight regulation and sound infrastructure, a conference in London was told yesterday.
The description came from a senior Department of Health executive, director of research Sir John Pattison, who pledged that the government would do all it could to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of stem cell science.
He told a conference in London organised by the Medical Research Council that the setting up of the world's first national stem cell bank in the UK was further evidence that the country is at the cutting edge of this promising new scientific era.
"It seems to me that the future looks bright and the Department of Health continues to work with scientists to ensure that it remains so. We want to see a bank through which a range of cell types can be made available to bona fide researchers, where the issues of donor consent will be properly dealt with and where there will be a high level of quality assurance."
Pattison was picking up on a theme raised earlier by Minister for Science Lord Sainsbury, who told the 400 delegates the rate of progress in stem cell research had been "astonishing" and that UK scientists had made important contributions.
But the minister warned it could be a race against time if stem cell research is to eventually produce, as many hope, effective therapies for neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
"We are some way from understanding the processes whereby cells differentiate. An ageing population is likely to increase the severity of these problems and I personally believe that Alzheimer's is one of the major looming problems that we face as a population.
"It could be a big problem unless we can find a treatment for it. Stem cell research opens up the possibility of repairing tissue damaged or destroyed by a range of devastating conditions."
Much of the attention at the conference focused on the emerging details of how the UK's stem cell bank will operate. Earlier in the week, the MRC had announced that the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, a government-funded body that vets the quality of vaccines and blood products, had been awarded the £2.6m contract to set up the bank. The institute, which is based just north of London, is best known for establishing and distributing the MRC-5 cell line that is now in routine use around the world for the production of adult and childhood vaccines.
The bank will store new and existing adult, foetal and embryonic stem cell lines. Biotech firms will submit applications to the institute, which will then set up project teams to analyse each individual cell line. A budget for each project will be agreed and progress will be closely monitored. Commercial contributors will agree to pay towards the production of a cell line and if the application is successful, the institute will then dictate the release of cells — or any information on them. A steering committee, made up of scientists and bioethicists, will develop a code of practice and regulate the running of the bank. Government officials said the NIBSC had been chosen because it was ideally placed to meet the difficult demands of running the bank, such as quality control and dealing with complex consent issues.
Three biotech firms have already offered to donate stem cell lines to the bank, which is expected to be up and running by the beginning of next year.
The institute's Glyn Stacey told delegates: "We hope to be able to offer access to them [cell lines] within the first 12 months." He also made it clear that foreign-based companies wanting to tap into the bank's reserves would be expected to adhere to the code of practice, even though they're not bound by UK law.
It also emerged at the conference that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority — the body that oversees all embryo research — will not sanction any work by research firms unless they first donate a sample of their cell lines to the new bank.
Chairwoman of the authority Suzi Leather said it was not legal to generate embryonic stem cells without a licence from the HFEA. The rule will not apply, however, to foetal or adult stem cells.
MRC chief executive Sir George Radda said international interest was "enormous" in what was being achieved in the UK. He said pro-life groups needed to understand that the bank would actually reduce the need for embryos by creating sustainable cell lines. The meeting was picketed by a small group of protestors wearing 'Former embryo' T-shirts. "The bank will be accessible to academic and industry in the UK and abroad," Radda added.
Lord Sainsbury told the meeting the Government's task is to "create a climate in which stem cell research and its applications can flourish." He added: "Much has already been achieved to strengthen the UK's international position in stem cell research and I see the bank as contributing to that process. There's a long way to go. But setting up the stem cell bank is an important step towards achieving what are likely to be major improvements in health care."
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Department of Health
Medical Research Council
National Institute for Biological Standards and Control
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
© 2002, The Scientist Inc