BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - The UK government stepped up its support for stem cell research, announcing funding of £4.9 million (US$9.1 million) for three multi-partner bioprocessing projects that aim to speed the translation of early stage academic research into practical applications. The projects involve 16 academic and commercial partners and have a total value of £9.9 million.

The largest project, worth £4.4 million, to be led by Guildford, UK-based ReNeuron Ltd., aims to push stem cell technology for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases to the point that it is ready for commercialization. ReNeuron's commercial partners, Angel Biotechnology Ltd. and RegenTec Ltd., will develop manufacturing processes and delivery systems, while academic partners the Institute of Psychiatry and King's College, both of London, will offer access to patients.

ReNeuron said the grant is an important contribution as it moves its stem cell therapy programs closer to the clinic. The company expects to secure approval for clinical trials of its lead product, ReN001, for treating disability caused by stroke, by the end of 2005.

A second £1.75 million project, to engineer high-throughput embryonic stem cell-based screens for use in drug discovery, will be led by Stem Cell Sciences Ltd., of Edinburgh, UK. Initially, mouse stem cells will be used, but human stem cells grown in serum-free conditions will be incorporated into the screen as they become available, and procedures would be developed for using the arrays on industry-standard automated screening platforms.

A third £3.75 million project, to be led by tissue-engineering specialist NovaThera Ltd., of London, will work to identify the factors that control the reproduction and differentiation of stem cells and their interaction with biomaterials and scaffolds. The aim is to develop intelligent bioprocessors capable of delivering the requisite numbers of appropriately differentiated cells, reproducibly and automatically.

Despite the supportive environment, the projects represent small change in comparison to the amount some U.S. states, most notably California, are proposing to spend on stem cell research. Last week, the UK BioIndustry Association assembled academic and commercial leaders of the UK stem cell community to express their views on what is needed to maintain the UK's position in the face of the money pouring into the field, not only in the U.S., but also Singapore, Korea and China.

John Sinden, chief scientific officer of ReNeuron, said the surge in funding will prompt people involved with UK's stem cell industry to migrate to the U.S. "When you have got that sort of competition it is very difficult. The UK [needs to] take a stand on how to add value to stem cell research, because there remain restrictions on stem cell research in the U.S."

The UK has led on the legislative framework and basic research in embryonic stem cells, agreed Peter Mountford, CEO of Stem Cell Sciences, but lacks a strategy going forward. "It is a ship without a rudder," he said.

Roger Pedersen, who came to the UK from the U.S. to be director of the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute because the environment for stem cell research is more favorable, also believes there is a need for more central coordination. "The potential of realizing the UK's promise depends on sound management of a limited resource. We don't have $3 billion, but we have a lot of intellectual capital and a highly developed public policy."

Another U.S. national who moved to the UK, Stephen Minger, of King's College London, said that compared to five to seven years ago, stem cell research now is attracting the best students, but the hardest task is keeping his research team together. "I have to continually apply for grants for my people."

The biggest threat isn't abroad, but from not maximizing the opportunity the UK has created, concluded Simon Best, CEO of Ardana Biosciences plc and the BIA's bioethics adviser. "We were ahead of the game in 2002, but the name of the game is different now. We need not tens, but thousands of millions [of pounds] if the UK is going to keep its position. We need money, and we need coordination."

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