BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - The UK government announced it will put an extra £40 million (US$64 million) into stem cell research over the next four years, creating one of the world's largest publicly funded programs.

This additional funding, on top of the £20 million already planned, "will put the UK at the forefront of international and commercial developments likely to flow from stem cell research," according to the government's science budget for 2003-06, published last week.

The UK recently became the first country to approve research into the use of human embryonic stem cells, including, controversially, the cloning of human embryos as a source of those cells.

The government has singled out stem cell research as one of the top priorities for science research spending between now and 2006. It hopes that the increased public support will attract researchers from overseas, and encourage increased commercial investment in this area. In May, Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed to make the UK "the best place in the world" to carry out stem cell research, claiming the country has an "intelligent, stable regulatory regime for this crucial field."

For the next four years research will be concentrated on understanding the capacity of stem cells to develop into different types of body cells, and their ability to function normally. "In the longer term, probably beyond 2006, preliminary studies of treatment will be undertaken in humans," according to the science budget report.

The program will build on existing developments such as the UK Stem Cell Bank, a national center for managing and supplying ethically approved and quality-controlled stem cell lines for research, which was set up earlier this year. Apart from stem cell biology and the therapeutic applications of stem cells, money will go to develop techniques for following the fate of grafted cells and their function, and there will be research into issues of public confidence, regulation and innovation.

The government said it has already had inquiries from UK companies and international agencies about collaborating with the publicly funded program.