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Last Updated: Monday, 7 March, 2005, 00:33 GMT
Is the UK losing its way with stem cells?
By Nick Triggle
BBC News health reporter

Dr Anthony Mathur, of Barts and The London NHS Trust
Dr Mathur believes stem cell treatment is the future of medicine
Scientists believe they are very close to finding a miracle cure for heart disease.

Various small studies have suggested stem cells taken from a patient's bone marrow and injected into the heart can repair the damage from heart disease.

What is needed now is a large scale study to establish whether the treatment works once and for all - but there is a risk it will not happen.

Doctors at Barts and The London NHS Trust are setting up a four-year research programme involving 600 patients but, like many experts involved in stem cell research in the UK, they are struggling to raise the money.

Dr Anthony Mathur, a consultant cardiologist at the trust, said: "This is a potentially revolutionary treatment for heart disease. It could transform the lives of people living with this debilitating condition.

Money issue

"But the problem we face is raising the money. Charities find it quite hard to commit large sums of money to one project."

And he added industry was not that interested in funding research such as his as using the body's own cells in the way the trust is doing makes it hard to get a patent.

About 200,000 has been raised so far through the Heart Cells Foundation, a charity set up by a patient who under went the treatment in Germany.

The trust is also exploring the possibility of getting a grant from government and embarking on its own fund raising activities.

Adult - Stem cells which already exist in the body. They are less flexible than either foetal or embryonic stem cells and, therefore, cannot be developed into as many other types of cells although they are less likely to be rejected by the body
Embryonic - Stem cells taken from embryos have proved the most controversial area of stem cell research. The advantage is that they can be developed into any of the bodies 300 cells
Foetal - Taken from an aborted foetus, this is the least common form of stem cell research. A kind of half-way house between adult and embryonic

Dr Mathur said using stem cells, premature cells that are capable of becoming any number of mature cells within the body given the right conditions, to treat disease was the future of medicine.

"Using drugs often has side-effects, but if you can use a body's own cells it is ideal because it avoids that problem.

"I really think this is the way forward; we have to grasp it."

But it is not just non-profit research such as Dr Mathur's that is at risk.

Even private ventures are struggling to raise cash for research which could ultimately lead to treatment for a whole range of condition from lung disease to hearing problems.

ReNeuron, a Guildford-based bio-pharmaceutical company which is focusing on neurodegenerative diseases, has been forced to look abroad for funding for its foetal stem cell research.

The company has been given a 2.2m grant by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) towards a three-year project to develop a stem cell-based treatment for diseases such as stroke, Huntington's disease and Parkinson's disease.

Sceptical position

ReNeuron needs to raise the same amount again, but it remains sceptical whether the money will come from the UK.

Chief operating officer Michael Hunt said: "We are looking to raise money in the US, and perhaps Europe, in the private equity market.

"The appetite for funding research such as ours, which is not at the clinical stage, is not what it was in the UK.

Sir Chris Evans (BBC)

"They have had their fingers burned and are not prepared to take the risk.

"It is different abroad. They will put money in with the knowledge that there are large returns if the treatment is successful."

The situation has become so critical that leading UK venture capitalist and bioscientist Professor Sir Chris Evans has called for a foundation to be set up to promote stem cell research.

He has said that unless a 100m fund is set up, Britain risks losing its position as the world leader in stem cell research.

He warned the UK could fall behind the likes of China, Korea and Japan if scientists were not able to make the step from research to clinical trials much more quickly.

Ian Gibson, chairman of the House of Commons science and technology select committee, agrees.

"We have the best scientists and the best ideas but within a year it could all be lost. They are not receiving the backing they should.

Priority stance

"Other countries are becoming major rivals. We need the government to take much more of a lead to make the case for stem cell research to the public and to industry.

"It must become a top priority and be debated."

But the DTI maintained it was. A spokesman said: "Stem cell research is one of the key areas the government wants to promote.

"We are fully committed to it; ministers are on the record saying they believe it has huge potential to help people with many diseases.

"To illustrate our commitment, the biotechnology area will be one of the major beneficiaries of the 10bn funding programme we are announcing this week.

"I don't think the UK will lose its position [as a world leader]."

Image of stem cell
The UK is a world leader on stem cell research

Professor Richard Gardner, chairman of the Royal Society working group on stem cell research and cloning, believes the scientific community has been well supported by ministers funding wise, although he admitted there was always scope for more.

However, he believes researchers have been put in a straight-jacket by regulation.

"We are getting closer and closer all the time with research on heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases, but we are not helped by the amount of regulation.

"Other countries, where we have seen a lot of progress, do not face the same restrictions.

"That is not to say we should follow them. There are some difficult ethical issues with stem cell research and there is a need for rules.

"But in some areas I feel the process could be streamlined.

"For example, with research that duplicates previous studies, which needs to be done to reinforce previous findings, researchers have to go through the same strict licensing process. Is this really necessary?

"We have to be ask where we will be in 10 years' time. I don't know, but we must look at this issue."

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