Tuesday, August 24, 2004

U.K. Takes Lead Role in Stem Cell Research

POTTERS BAR, England - At the end of a winding country road lined with hedgerows and tidy brick homes sits a new prefabricated building chock-full of monitors and filters. Its sole purpose is to guard and nurture vials of precious, potentially life-giving cells, called stem cells, that will soon occupy a squat green Thermos here.

When it starts accepting cells a few months from now, the UK Stem Cell Bank will become a sort of citadel for what is perhaps the most promising medical technology of the last 50 years, which many believe is likely to yield cures for devastating diseases from diabetes to Parkinson's.

But the government-funded British cell bank is also a symbol: Although embryonic stem cell technology started in the United States, the scientific epicenter is shifting overseas, particularly to Britain, where politicians and regulators have given their unabashed support to the research - albeit under strictly monitored conditions.

In the United States, in contrast, stem cell research is struggling, stigmatized and crippled by President George W. Bush's declaration that it is morally suspect and his decision to deny federal funding for most new projects in the field. This month, Britain granted its first license for therapeutic cloning to a group at the University of Newcastle, allowing scientists to create human embryos in order to harvest stem cells that may be beneficial for treating diseases. To support stem cell technologies the British government spent 2.6 million, or $4.7 million, to create the UK Stem Cell Bank and will soon require that all embryonic stem cell lines in Britain be stored and distributed through this clearinghouse.

Elisabeth Rosenthal/IHT International Herald Tribune