By Kerry Capell Britain has long been known for Shakespeare, soccer, fine cheeses, and quirky cars. Now, it's emerging as the world leader in one of the most controversial, yet promising, areas of scientific research: human embryonic stem cells. As these master cells can develop into any of the more than 200 specialized tissues in the body, they hold the key to future treatments for devastating diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes.
Embryonic stem-cell research has become a hot potato in other countries, most notably in the U.S., where scientific understanding of the vast potential these cells hold has been slowed by a moral debate over when human life begins. But in Britain, home to the world's first test-tube baby and Dolly the cloned sheep, more than a decade of ongoing dialogue between scientists, government, and religious officials has resulted in the most conducive climate in the world for this important new area of scientific research.
CELL BANK. Britain is the only country on the globe with a regulatory structure in place that provides a clear road map for both public- and private-sector research on embryonic stem cells. In late February, Britain's House of Lords approved research on human embryonic stem cells cultured from surplus embryos donated by fertility clinics for scientists who receive a license from the Human Fertilization & Embryology Authority (HFEA). The latter is a state agency that regulates fertility and embryonic stem-cell research.
The House of Lords also backed the Medical Research Council's plan to create the world's first bank for newly created stem-cell lines, which are essentially a reservoir of cells derived from a single embryo.
In a move that generated controversy even in Britain, the government approved the therapeutic cloning of embryos up to two weeks old under limited conditions and tightly regulated by the HFEA. The benefit, say scientists, is the ability to create a limitless supply of embryonic stem cells. Previously, British scientists had been able to use embryonic tissue only for infertility research.
"BRAIN GAIN." British scientists have wasted no time in applying for their cloning credentials. On Mar. 1, the HFEA awarded the first such licenses to two teams of scientists in London and Edinburgh. Both groups plan to deposit any new cell lines they generate in the new stem-cell bank. The scientists, however, say they have no immediate plans to try therapeutic cloning.
With the legal and regulatory stage set, Britain is attracting some of the world's top talent to its shores. Already, a handful of top American stem-cell researchers, such as former University of California at San Francisco Professor Roger Pedersen, have been lured across the Atlantic. Indeed, Sir George Radda, the head of the Medical Research Council, which will fund the stem-cell bank, is predicting a "brain gain." The Medical Research Council has set up fast-track grants to entice international academics to Britain and is investing $57 million a year to support training, fellowships, and other research programs in this field.
A number of other well-funded charities such as the Wellcome Trust have also announced their plans to pony up millions in research grants to scientists engaged in stem-cell research. "The climate for this kind of research is enormously better in Britain than in the U.S.," says Professor Chris Higgins, director of the Medical Research Council's clinical sciences center at London's Imperial College.
CREATING NEW LINES. British scientists have a number of advantages over their American counterparts. In the U.S., publicly funded scientists are restricted to working only on stem-cell lines already in existence. However, just 15 such lines are thought to be growing in labs around the world, and it's not clear how many of them will be effective for research purposes. Scientists in Britain are free to see if they can replicate and develop new lines of stem cells.
Moreover, some of the existing lines are already under patent, meaning their use for further experimentation will be restricted. Privately funded researchers are free to engage in embryonic stem-cell research. But many believe that limited federal funding could actually impede progress in the private sector. "American companies might be handicapped as there wouldn't be the extensive collaboration between the public and private sectors that has been responsible for so many important scientific advances," says Dr. Martin Edwards, CEO of British stem-cell company ReNeuron.
The U.S. remains adamantly opposed to therapeutic cloning, on the grounds that it could eventually lead to the morally dubious prospect of reproductive cloning. The issue is hugely contentious in the U.S., where last December the House of Representatives passed a bill that would make any form of human cloning a criminal offense punishable with a $1 million fine and up to 10 years in jail.
Yes, research on early human embryos raises numerous ethical and scientific questions. But those concerns must be balanced with the potential these cells might hold in treating previously incurable diseases. Such treatments are still several years away. By instituting a clear legal and ethical framework, Britain has ensured that its scientists will play a major role in any such discoveries. That's innovation. Capell covers biotech issues from BusinessWeek's London bureau