U.K. Seeks Lead in Stem-Cell Research

As the debate about embryonic stem-cell research rages in the United States, the United Kingdom is trying to become a leader in this burgeoning field of research. It has launched a stem-cell bank and is building several labs to make pharmaceutical-grade stem cells.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. Research on embryonic stem cells is controversial in this country. President Bush has called the effort to make those cells from cloned human embryos and egregious abuse of medical research. On the other side of the Atlantic, the situation is radically different. The British Government has embraced stem cell research largely for its potential to provide cures for diseases. NPR's Joe Palca reports.

JOE PALCA reporting:

London has long been one of the world's financial capitals. The British government hopes a new bank recently opened in a London suburb will make it a capital of biology as well. The National Institute for Biological Standards and Control is in Potter's Bar. Fifteen minutes by fast train from London's King's Cross Station. It's the home of the UK stem cell bank.

Mr. LYNN STACEY(ph) (UK Stem Cell Bank Manager): What you can see here is that you've got the cleaning corridor. On the other side are three dedicated laboratories.

PALCA: Lynn Stacey is the bank manager as it were. It's the bank's job to store, maintain and distribute stem cells. In particular, embryonic stem cells. Human embryonic stem cells have unique properties. Under the right circumstances, they can turn into any cell type in the body. Skin, heart, nerve, you name it. Researchers plan to use these stem cells to study diseases, and perhaps even replace damaged cells as a way of treating diseases.

Mr. STACEY: It's been noisy in here.

PALCA: Powerful air conditioners draw air through thick filters to make sure inside the lab is as clean as possible. There are 24 embryonic stem cell lines already on deposit. They come from scientists in the UK, Australia and interestingly enough, Harvard University in the United States.

Mr. STACEY: Deposits will have a shop window which everyone in the world can look at and see the quality of the cells, and pick the cells they want.

PALCA: Once scientists make a selection, they can take the cells back to their labs and start using them for their research. One of the scientists looking in that shop window will be Chris Shaw. Shaw is a neurologist. His office is in the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London. He works on ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. It's a terrible illness.

Mr. CHRIS SHAW (Neurologist, Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London): It usually starts quite insidiously with weakness in the hand or foot, and people often think it's something quite trivial or minor.

PALCA: Shaw says over time nerve cells called motor neuron stop functioning. You lose your ability to walk, to feed yourself, even to breath on your own.

Mr. SHAW: One of the hardest things, the most isolating things is you lose the ability to communicate. You can't speak to somebody to tell them how you feel, and you can't touch them and show them how you feel. It's a very difficult illness to deal with.

PALCA: And right now there's little doctors can do besides watch the inexorable decline. ALS is a hard disease to study. And embryonic stem cells might help. Scientists would like to investigate a patient's motor neurons in the laboratory to try to find out why they stop working. But Shaw says it's hard to get your hands on motor neurons since patients need the ones they've got.

Mr. SHAW: We do know that embryonic stem cells can be directed very clearly and very definitively to become motor neurons in culture and behave like most neurons. So we know that if we can get the human embryonic stem cells, we can probably derive motor neurons.

PALCA: Among other things, Shaw hopes embryonic stem cells will make it easier to test new drugs that might improve a patient's symptoms. In the United States, embryonic stem cell research is controversial. In Britain it's not. Steve Jones thinks he knows why.

Mr. STEVE JONES (Geneticist/Writer, University College, London): What made Britain great was apathy, there's no question. This is the most passionately apathetic nation in the world, I think.

PALCA: Jones is a geneticist and writer at the University College, London.

Mr. JONES: We like to feel strongly about absolutely nothing. That's a strength and weakness, but in this case, I think it's rather strength.

PALCA: Jones says the reason it's a strength is that opponents of embryonic stem cell research, and they do exist in Britain, can't inflame passions against research most people favor the way they have in the U.S.

Mr. JONES: What's actually happened is this, sort of, perhaps slightly false consensus has emerged. That the great and the good who think the way they ought to think are being appointed, and those who are awkward have been marginalized. So it isn't all perfect, and it is somewhat marked by politics. But it's not completely blotted by stupidity the way it is in the United States.

PALCA: A lot of people in Britain can't understand why, if there's such strong opposition to embryonic stem cells in the United States, there's no federal legislation prohibiting or even regulating it. The British decision to fund embryonic stem cell research came after a long national debate about the ethics of this kind of research. And the ethics is still a frequent conversation topic.

Unidentified Male #1: What do you want to drink Harry?

Mr. HARRY MOORE (Sheffield University Ethics Program): Oh just Coke please.

PALCA: Harry Moore is having lunch with some colleagues from Sheffield University's ethics program.

Unidentified Female #1: Bag chips and teas?

PALCA: Sheffield is in the North of England. It's a center for stem cell research. Moore is a reproductive biologist with the University Stem Cell Program. Inevitably the lunchtime chat turns to questions about the moral and legal status of a human embryo.

Unidentified Male Host #2: Yes it's functionally an embryo, meaning it can develop into this kind of person.

PALCA: To get a human embryonic stem cell line, you have to destroy a human embryo. But there are many thousands of embryos sitting in freezers around the world. Fertility doctors created these embryos to help infertile couples have babies. Typically more embryos are made than can be used.

Proponents of stem cell research say these embryos will ultimately be discarded, so why not use them to help find treatments for disease? Indeed Moore and his colleagues are already preparing for the day when embryonic stem cells will be used to treat disease.

Mr. MOORE: This is the first stage room. So you take off ordinary clothes here.

PALCA: We're in a suite of laboratories in the campus hospital, just down the hall from the IBF Clinic. This is where Moore and his colleagues will make embryonic stem cells in the kind of carefully controlled conditions needed to make new therapies. To go inside, we have to zip into clean white jumpsuits made of a special material that doesn't shed the tiny particles that typically fall off our clothes.

Mr. MOORE: These are analogue, so it's positive pressure. So you have a cascade of air pressures from your inner sanctum to outside.

PALCA: The idea is to make sure all the air is filtered to avoid the possibility of contamination. Even in this outer room, things look incredibly clean, but we have to go through yet another air lock to get into the inner most lab. Inside there are a few lab benches and a couple of refrigerators. In this room, scientist will extract the precious clump of cells from an embryo and with luck, coax them to start dividing in a laboratory making a new embryonic stem cell line.

Mr. MOORE: Once we have the cell line, it can be frozen. And we can then use it later when we have a therapy.

PALCA: Notice Moore says when, not if. Right now there are no therapies based on embryonic stem cells.

Mr. MOORE: I think it is imperative that we create stem cell lines now that could be used in the future for therapy.

PALCA: So you just built and are commissioning a two and half million dollar facility against the hope that someday it will be useful?

Mr. MOORE: Yes, basically yes.

PALCA: It's a gamble the UK government thinks is worth taking. Even if the medical payoff is many years off. Joe Palca, NPR News.

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