BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON The UK government has removed the last legal barrier to stem cell research using human embryos, paving the way for the UK to take the lead in this field as the only country with a precise regulatory framework governing such research.

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, the agency that regulates the research, said it had granted the first two licenses to scientists at Edinburgh University and King’s College, London, allowing them to culture stem cell lines from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments.

The two main academic funding bodies, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the charity The Wellcome Trust, are expected to announce grants worth several million pounds over the next few months for embryonic stem cell research. The MRC also immediately called for tenders from laboratories to set up and run an independent UK national stem cell bank.

Parliament voted last year to allow therapeutic cloning but said no research permits should be granted until a House of Lords committee, headed by the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, completed a review of the scientific and ethical issues.

In its report last week the committee rejected the argument that advances in research on adult stem cells mean research on embryonic stem cells is unnecessary. It said embryos left over from IVF should be used in preference to embryos cloned for the purpose, but that cloning should be allowed where “there is a demonstrable and exceptional need which cannot be met in other ways.”

The committee said it did not believe this approval would create a slippery slope leading to reproductive cloning.

The UK BioIndustry Association said these conclusions reinforced the pre-eminence of the UK. “[It] sends a positive message that the UK is the right place for this research,” said the chief executive, Crispin Kirkman.

The Wellcome Trust also welcomed the report. “The House of Lords have endorsed UK research into the therapeutic potential of stem cells, which is already creating a precedent for the rest of the world,” said Mike Dexter, director of the trust.

“Scientists can now get on with finding treatments for life-threatening diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes and cancer, thanks to this common sense report.”

George Radda, chief executive of the MRC, said the national stem cell bank will be set up as a matter of urgency. “Such a bank will allow researchers to explore this enormous potential in a controlled environment.” The council is developing a set of principles to cover the ethical, legal and regulatory issues associated with the bank, and is devising donor information leaflets and consent forms.

The MRC also is hopeful that the decision will attract stem cell researchers to the UK from abroad.

Although the go-ahead is expected to lead to an explosion in stem cell research, it will have no direct effect on Europe’s only publicly quoted stem cell therapy company, ReNeuron Ltd., of Guildford, Surrey, because its cell lines are derived from fetal stem cells.