Final Word: World Firsts — From the Double Helix to Therapeutic Cloning

The UK remains on the cutting edge of life sciences research, including stem cells, making it the partner of choice for the US.
Sep 01, 2004
Volume 17, Issue 9

Alastair Newton
The US will, beyond doubt, remain the world leader in life sciences for the foreseeable future. However, as with other sectors, bioscience — both R&D and business — is increasingly global. For US researchers and business leaders alike, it makes increasing sense to look beyond the shores of America for both expertise and profit-making opportunities. For many, the principal partner of choice has been — and will remain — the United Kingdom. There are sound reasons for this.

The 1953 discovery of the double helix at Cambridge University — just one of many outstanding examples of US-UK collaboration in life sciences — has been cited by many scientists as the single most important 20th-century development in biology. To this day, bioscience remains a strong part of the UK's identity, with 23 Nobel laureates awarded for biomedical research at UK research institutes over the past 40 years.

Underpinning this is the British government's continuing focus on ensuring that the UK remains second only to the US in the global bioscience community.

The UK's government expenditure on R&D in medical and biological sciences is bested only by the US. Many of the 83,000 people employed by the industry are highly skilled graduates from Britain's pool of world class universities. Generous and wide-ranging tax credits for R&D provide a further boost for the private sector.

To maintain the growth of the bioscience industry, the UK is ensuring access to key technologies that offer the industry great promise for future innovations. One such area is stem cell technology.

The UK has recently achieved several milestones in stem cell research, confirming its position as the world leader. The world's first stem cell bank was formally opened in the UK in May 2004 with the deposition of two cell lines. One month later, Cambridge University opened a $30 million stem cell center with a commitment to fundamental research on both human embryonic and adult stem cells. And — potentially the most far-reaching development of all — in August, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) granted the Newcastle Centre for Life a license to undertake research involving somatic cell nuclear transfer.

The 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act made it legal to conduct research on embryos for specified purposes, such as infertility treatment. In 2001, the regulations were amended to allow therapeutic cloning (while reproductive cloning remains illegal) to investigate embryonic development and improve treatment and understanding of serious disease. Thus, three years after therapeutic cloning was made legal, the first license was granted allowing scientists to clone human embryos to extract stem cells. The ultimate goal is to apply the knowledge gained from studying the development of embryos to developing treatments for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and diabetes.

This development bestows upon UK-based bioscience companies and researchers the enviable position of leading the world in transforming the potential benefits of stem cell research into treatments. As the evolution of policy since 1990 readily demonstrates, the UK government is committed to creating a regulatory regime which underpins the growth of the bioscience sector while guaranteeing that scientific endeavors are rigorously reviewed on sound principles and maintain safeguards for the general public.

It is this unique combination of established scientific expertise, continuing significant investment in R&D, and sound and business-friendly regulation which underpins the UK's position as a world leader and life sciences partner of choice for US academia and business alike.

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