US stem cell research ready to leap ahead

With U.S. scientists poised for a resurgence in embryonic stem cell work, British researchers are warning that the U.K. could lose its pole position in the field.

President-elect Barack Obama is expected to lift federal funding restrictions on stem-cell research soon after he is sworn in Jan. 20, reversing the limits President Bush placed on the use of embryonic stem cells more than seven years ago. During the campaign, Obama said he considered embryonic stem cell research to be ethical when the embryos--which are destroyed as stem cells are harvested--are donated for that purpose.

The president-elect's transition chief John Podesta recently hinted that Obama would shift policy accordingly, and soon. "I think you can expect that what he said in the campaign will be fulfilled once in office," Podesta told the Associated Press. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to introduce legislation if a regulatory framework is necessary to enable expanded stem cell research.

The new climate in Washington, however, has spooked some in the United Kingdom. Britain lacks a regulatory framework to underpin clinical trials, and scientists complain that stem cell research suffers from inadequate funding. Those two deficiencies are hampering the transfer of stem cell breakthroughs from the lab to the real world.

In fact, much of British research has relied on money from abroad, including Saudi Arabia and--believe it or not--the United States. One researcher experimenting with macular degeneration therapies has a bank of cells ready for use in up to 6 million patients, and all his work on moving the therapy from lab to hospital has been funded from the U.S. "[U]nless more investment comes in from the U.K. then this will go to the U.S.," professor Pete Coffey said.

- read the Associated Press story in the Boston Globe
- check out the BBC article