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British stem cell research to get cash boost

Stem cell research in Britain is set to get a cash boost from the government, the head of the UK Stem Cell Foundation said on Thursday.
/ Source: Reuters

Stem cell research in Britain is set to get a cash injection from the government, underpinning the country’s leading position in the controversial field, the head of the UK Stem Cell Foundation said on Thursday.

“The Chancellor will make an announcement tomorrow on stem cell funding in the UK,” David Macauley, the foundation’s chief executive, told a biotechnology conference. A spokesman for Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, Britain’s finance minister, declined to comment. Scientists say Britain has one of the world’s best regulatory environments for research into stem cells, which have the potential to provide new treatments for illnesses ranging from diabetes to spinal cord injuries to Alzheimer’s disease. But there is a lack of funding to develop the technology.

In a bid to address this issue, Brown earlier this year appointed John Pattison, R&D director at the Department of Health, to formulate a 10-year vision for stem cell research, which Macauley said was now complete.

Pattison’s brief was to draw up a strategy in collaboration with government research councils, as well as with private sector organizations like the UK Stem Cell Foundation.

Established earlier this year, the non-profit foundation aims to raise 100 million pounds ($172.9 million) to back “translational” research, designed to develop practical applications from stem cell breakthroughs.

So far, it has raised around 12 million pounds, and Macauley said it was evaluating seven projects, including ones for diabetes, blindness, heart disease and bone repair. The most advanced could enter clinical trials within 18 months and be on the market around the end of the decade.

The foundation was originally set up by biotech entrepreneur Chris Evans, in a bid to secure Britain’s leading position in stem cell research. It is currently chaired by Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College and the former chairman of GlaxoSmithKline Plc.

Macauley said the aim was to provide a funding bridge while stem cell technology matures enough to attract widespread conventional venture capital backing.

“We are not struggling for ideas in this country. What we are struggling for is to make something of it. We have a window of opportunity here -- there is a global race, when you see what is going on in Korea and China,” he said.

Stem cells are master cells in the body that can develop into any cell type, and scientists believe they could therefore act as a type of repair system for the body.

But their use is controversial because the most promising stem cells for treating human diseases are derived from very early human embryos left over from fertility treatments.