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UK's regulatory framework gives it an advantage in stem cell research

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 24 November 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1228
  1. Christiane Rehwagen
  1. BMJ

    The United Kingdom is one of the best places in the world to do stem cell research, a research conference in London heard last week. Stephen Minger, the director of the stem cell biology laboratory at King's College London, was speaking at a conference on stem cell research organised by the Progress Educational Trust in London.

    He explained, “This is because of the strong history in stem cell biology in the UK, the tight regulatory system administered by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and the strong commitment we have, both financially and politically, from the government.”

    Simon Best, chairman elect of the UK's BioIndustry Association, added, “Australia, the UK, some US states, and Sweden are world class in this field. The UK is in a good position to build on the talents.”

    The conference was told that many concerns have to be addressed to ensure that such research continues, however. One issue is that of financing. UK researchers hope that the government is going to put a total of £100m ($171m;£146m) funding into this research area in the next months.

    Another concern is a lack of skilled scientists. “Given the fact that this field is both new and was until the late 1990s a very specialised one, the major limiting factors on the pace of its development may no longer be money, but lack of experienced research scientists,” said Dr Best. The third issue is that of ethics and, in particular, the ethical sourcing of human eggs and embryos for use in stem cell research.

    Conference speaker Peter Braude, the head of the division of obstetrics and gynaecology at King's College London, said, “It is likely that the only viable option would be to use eggs donated by young women specifically for research purposes, which raises questions about safety, who should donate, and whether payment should be received.”

    One solution to the ethical controversy would be the possibility of developing engineered alternatives to embryos for stem cell research, said Martin Evans, director of the school of biosciences at the University of Cardiff. The main reason for the ethical debate and the regulative and legislative intervention around stem cells was because they were derived from early embryos, he said.

    Not just scientific but also ethical transparency was needed to keep confidence, not only in the public but also in the scientists themselves, said Jan Helge Solbakk, a medical ethicist from the University of Oslo.

    “Without public confidence we can't get consensus,” said Suzi Leather, chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. “Researchers must continue to be engaged with public opinion to provide confidence about their work, reassuring people that their research is beneficial and appropriate. Today the UK public has confidence in regulation to give honest and accurate information on stem cell research,” she added.

    Anna Smajdor, a researcher in medical ethics at Imperial College London, believes that at a time when it might soon become possible for men to have their own genetic babies through cloning and stem cell research, it is critical that a further discussion of the full ethical implications of the technologies is launched.

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