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Will the UK have to stem brain drain?

Susan Watts | 17:36 UK time, Monday, 9 March 2009

Stem CellsPresident Barack Obama has today signed an executive order, lifting the restrictions on stem cell science put in place by his predecessor, President Bush. The move has been condemned by conservative and religious groups, but many scientists see this as the start of a new, more optimistic era for a science that's promising cures for conditions from Alzheimer's disease to blindness.

Some American scientists could hardly contain themselves: "I feel vindicated after eight years of struggle, and I know it's going to energise my research team," one said this morning. He was looking back over a Bush presidency ever mindful of those who oppose the use of human embryos to create "lines" of stem cells. George Bush restricted stem cell scientists, allowing them to use federal money for research on only on a very limited number of cell lines.

With today's move, president Obama has reversed all that. Though scientists still can't actually make embryos to use their stem cells, they can now buy any stem cell line they want. This is a huge injection of confidence into stem cell science, and that confidence is almost as important as the practical reality of gaining access to a greater range of cell lines.

So will this speed up new treatments?

Well, not immediately. In the Bush years, some scientists found ways round the restrictions. They sought private backing for research not allowed using tax payers' money, or looked at ways to explore their scientific goals without using stem cells from embryos. So today's step in itself may not mean an immediate glut of new science, thought the extra money set to become available under president Obama's push to expand medical sciences with his economic stimulus package is expected to have a big impact.

And the science itself is already forging ahead. Almost every day there are advances in the scientific journals, which slowly but surely offer the promise of a future where we can replace worn out tissues damaged by disease or ageing - or even perhaps one day, replace whole organs.

Stem Cells being extracted from an embryoThere is still a debate within stem cell science over the hurdles researchers must straddle when they want to test potential treatments in large numbers of patients. One company apparently had to submit 20,000-odd pages of documentation to secure FDA approval for its clinical trial. Though other stem cell scientists say theirs is such a new area of research and the dangers still so hard to quantify, that it's right for their work to be tightly regulated. What they fear most is a tragic outcome in a patient that stalls the whole field.

There are now fears that this very different approach in the US will offer an inspiring environment for young British scientists, and that we could even see a new "brain drain" of UK researchers heading for the states, or American researchers who left during the Bush years going back home. It's really too early to say if that's happening, or not. What is certain is that there will be a huge amount of money available to scientists in the US, billions of dollars are earmarked for the National Institutes of Health as part of the stimulus package. The UK's established stem cell scientists might have roots firm enough that they resist the urge to wander off. But younger PhDs, just starting out, might see the US as a more attractive option - with the prospect, one scientist told me today, of $2-3m grants for researchers in California - where stem cell science is receiving massive state funding.

And all of this puts put extra pressure on the UK government to make sure British science remains competitive. Ministers have talked a lot in recent weeks about supporting science - with Gordon Brown's big speech at Oxford University ten days ago stressing the importance of our science base in re-creating our economy. And today, at the start of National Science and Engineering week, science minister Lord Drayson is calling on industry to back the creation of more science and technology "ambassadors", to go into schools and help inspire our young people. The prime minister might contemplate how best to make sure that they don't all drift overseas once they graduate. Stem cell science is getting more money than other areas of scientific research, indeed more money is going into science in general... but whether it will be enough to keep our young people here is another question...


  • Comment number 1.


    I don't think the curing (or not) of extreme conditions is going to make much difference to a mad world. The problems arising out of simple stupidity, are what need addressing.

  • Comment number 2.

    its never used to help people but used by rich people to have clones of their pets.

    or bring back dinosaurs. its the usual frankenstein stuff.

  • Comment number 3.

    barrie (#1) Alas, Newsnight doesn't seem interested, even though it touches all the important issues: immigration, birth-rate, education, crime, economy, welfare.....

    Now isn't that odd?

  • Comment number 4.

    Eight of the ten best universities in the world are still in the US and I am sure a lot of the American researchers exiled to the UK will return as soon as they are able.

    The UK is rubbish at backing the many excellent discoveries made by British researchers and at establishing new industries, whilst the Americans know that transformational change requires serious amounts of risk-taking and hard cash.

  • Comment number 5.

    Yes UK is hopeless at turning it's ideas into valuable innovative wealth generating companies.
    Lord Drayson, seems to be doing a reasonable job. But unfortunately Gordon Brown is too slow to make decisions that will prevent all our expertise leaving for better opportunities in other countries
    No doubt Brown will now over react because of the banking situation and his one time friends like Sir Fred, and use it as argument to over tax these wealth and idea generating people. Here we go back to the 70's

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.



  • Comment number 8.

    Don't expect any help from no mandate Mandelson. He's all in favour of British brain drain. He's the one telling skilled British workers to "get on their Easyjet" and go abroad. Labour just doesn't care about putting British as their #1 priority.

    For example, look at that Gordon Brown tag cloud from last week. It shows where his loyalties lie, the words "global", "world" and "America" all in big letters, but you have to get your magnifying glass out to spot the word "Britain" on there. Can you imagine an American president putting Americans so far down on his list of priorities?

  • Comment number 9.

    Interesting to read the generally hostility towards this technology. My wife has had MS for many years now. Every day I see her slowly becoming more disabled and suffering in constant pain. There is good reason to believe that the damage to the nerves in those afflicted with MS could be repaired with Stem Cell Therapy in the not too distant future.

    There are more and more people suffering from MS and other so called ‘auto-immune diseases’. Perhaps it would be more rational to prevent the diseases in the first place. I suspect that the food industry is slowly ‘poisoning’ us by damaging our digestive system with all the chemicals they put in our food.

  • Comment number 10.

    I am tired of government handouts to the medical researchers so Corporations can then monopolize the final product. It is a systematic form of esoteric slavery. This research is also dangerous, could be used for bioweapons or a link to the break down of our natural immunities to viruses. A can of ugly worms indeed. Natural healing and preventative healthcare is far superior. We must put the system under a microscope for awhile.

  • Comment number 11.

    But did Obama really say this? Or were his words edited and re-ordered by Newsnight to make him say something he didn't say?


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