A new initiative to oversee and promote stem cell research in the UK was launched last week. The UK National Stem Cell Network (UKNSCN) aims to 'bring coherence and coordination' to existing regional and national activities in the field. It was formed in response to a Government review, published in 2005, which called for a new network to bring together various different areas of stem cell research.
Speaking at the launch of the UKNSCN in London, Lord Naren Patel of Dunkeld, the first chair of the UKNSCN steering committee, said that 'the UK is one of the world's leading nations for stem cell science but we have to ensure that as we move closer to real applications to help patients that all our scientists are pulling together in a coordinated effort, adding 'the Network will work with the researchers, the health service and industry to help turn first class research in the labs into therapies for our patients in the hospitals'. Lord Patel also called for increased funding for UK stem cell research, so it can keep up with countries such as Singapore, Japan and China.
But disagreements over who should regulate the approval of stem cells for human use could delay the arrival of new therapies, scientists said last week. According to the Guardian newspaper, researchers say the responsibility for approving new 'clinical grade' facilities for producing stem cells falls to either the Human Tissue Authority (HTA), or the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). However, each body claims the task falls outside its remit.
Most of the stem cell lines in existence are unsuitable for use in human trials, as they have been grown using animal products, for example the 'feeder' layers of animal cells used to support and nourish human stem cells. As such, they carry a risk of transmitting animal viruses to patients, or triggering an immune response. Although millions of pounds are being spent on building new laboratories for growing and storing new 'clean' stem cells free from any animal cell products, the Government has yet to decide whether they should be accredited by the HTA or MHRA. 'Neither of these think its their job, so it's a ping-pong that's been going back and forth between the two', said Professor Michael Whitaker, of the North East England Stem Cell Initiative.