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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 February, 2005, 22:24 GMT
Call for 100m UK stem cell fund
Embryo cloning (Wang et al)
Stem cell work is advancing fast in countries such as Korea and China
Leading UK scientists and entrepreneurs are calling for the creation of a charitable foundation to promote and fund stem cell research in Britain.

They believe this could accelerate work on developing new therapies for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's, and for treating spinal injuries.

The group believes a fund of 100m would be necessary to anchor the UK's position as a leader in the field.

The call was made at the Centre For Life, a Newcastle science park.

It hosted a meeting for the British stem cell research community on Tuesday.

Slipping back

Stem cells are premature cells that are capable of becoming any of a number of mature cells within the body, given the right conditions.

Sir Chris Evans (BBC)
I think that there's a gap - I know that there's a gap - and I think it's quite substantial and I want to do something about it
Prof Sir Chris Evans, venture capitalist and bioscientist
And many scientists are convinced that if they can learn how to control the biochemistry involved, they will be able deliver new therapies for degenerative diseases where cells have started to fail - from heart disease to diabetes.

One of the key movers behind the fund to back this kind of research is Professor Sir Chris Evans, a venture capitalist and bioscientist.

He is concerned early advances made in the UK will be overtaken abroad unless money can be found to take basic research into clinical trials much faster.

"[Britain] pioneered this entire field but now we are sliding backwards somewhat, as others accelerate ahead," he told BBC News.

"You see big breakthroughs from China, Korea, Japan and in Germany; and there is a wall of money surfacing in the USA."

Big names

The proposed UK Stem Cell Foundation would have a board of trustees - high-profile businessmen and scientists who could help raise substantial monies.

These include the Virgin Group chairman, Sir Richard Branson; fertility expert and BBC TV presenter Lord Winston; president of the Royal Society and former UK Chief Scientist, Lord May; former science minister Ian Gibson, MP; geneticist and best-selling author Professor Steve Jones; and Sir Richard Sykes, the former chairman of GlaxoSmithKline plc.

The fund would look to support all areas of stem cell research - it would not focus exclusively on the ethically difficult area of cells taken from embryos, but would look to back good ideas that use cells taken for adult tissue, too.

"What we have got to do is to get into what's called translational research," said Sir Chris.

"We need to take potential stem cell medicines, regenerative medicines, to the clinic, into patients and do proper clinical trials and prove the benefits.

"That's the delivery everybody wants, but to get there it's a few more years and a lot of money and I think that there's a gap - I know that there's a gap - and I think it's quite substantial and I want to do something about it."

New licence

The group is now in discussions with the government about how best to move forward its ideas.

The foundation's backers are keen to provide support that would add to the already considerable funds flowing from government and medical charities such as the Wellcome Trust.

But what they do not want to see happen is duplication or their investment take the place of existing funding.

News of the Newcastle initiative came on the day that Dolly the sheep creator Professor Ian Wilmut was granted a licence to clone embryos.

Working with Kings College London scientists he will harvest the embryos for stem cells in a quest to understand the causes and find a new treatment for motor neurone disease.

Why stem cell research is so important

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