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Science brain-drain?

Susan Watts | 16:12 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Talk of a new science brain-drain bubbled up again this morning, as science minister David Willetts was given a stark warning that the UK's world class status in stem cell research is under threat.

He was told that a funding gap, between research and commercialisation of stem cell therapies, is already being filled overseas. Leading edge research is at a critical stage in the UK, stem cell scientists said this morning, where it needs money to progress through clinical trials, and then on to commercialisation.

If the UK misses the opportunity successfully to translate and commercialise such therapies, scientists will start to be attracted to other countries, according to Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of the UK Stem Cell Foundation, newly-appointed head of the Royal Institution and former chairman of the pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline. "We will see British scientists move away if that happens, and crucial benefits that we could exploit will be exploited by other people," Sir Richard warned.

As if to back up his fears, professor Peter Coffey of the London Project to Cure Blindness, at University College London, said other countries are already looking "very attractive". He is working on a stem cell-based therapy for the eye condition age-related macular degeneration. He cited Californian investment of $3bn in stem cell science, and Singapore's announcement two weeks ago of a $10bn stem cell research fund - one area of which is the eye.

Professor Coffey clearly wants to resist the lure of overseas facilities and money. Speaking to journalists in London he said: "I'm loyal to where I was born. I was educated here, I have family here, I don't see why I should move out of the UK."

But if funding fell by a certain level, he feared having to make people unemployed. "The pressures are becoming huge," he said. And professor Coffey may be one of the luckier researchers. His research has backing from Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

The government's spending review is clearly at the back of everyone's mind. Asked how much of a cut would make a serious dent in his ability to carry on, professor Coffey said a 10% cut in research council money or in the infrastructure that supports stem cell science in this country would mean he'd be looking at laying people off.

Sir Richard said charitable money is available to be tapped - perhaps as much as £100m - but that most investors want the security of knowing that their money is matched by government investment.

Scientists say stem cell therapies could reach clinical practice sooner than some regulators had expected. Therapies to treat liver and heart conditions, and perhaps bone and joint disorders could come in under five years, depending on investment, though therapies for neuro-degenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Disease are likely to be 10 years out or more.

David Willetts said the government recognises that stem cells have enormous potential for health benefits, and for contributing to our wealth and economic growth, describing this as "an exciting area of scientific advance."

He announced the go-ahead for two competitions for companies seeking to bring new therapies to the marketplace. These are expected to be worth about £10m though, as with so much else, scientists will have to wait for the spending review before the exact amount available will be clear.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    ..but that most investors want the security of knowing that their money is matched by government investment. ..

    then they are not real investors but freeloaders.

    do we need stem cells that might help a few who can pay for it?

    as usual lots if ifs, maybe, perhaps could save the world and stop climate change yada.

    the crisis is in the uk training people for the jobs it has. that is where the money should go.

  • Comment number 2.

    OR PERHAPS - BETTER STILL (#1)

    Train our young to live comfortably inside their own heads, before they try to function in this mad corner of a cockeyed world.

    Do contented individuals exploit/manipulate/twist/grind/oppress their fellow humans? Just for sport? Let's run the experiment and see.

  • Comment number 3.

    I can see where Prof Coffey is coming from.

    Next week I am in Brussels as part of a one billion euro bid for EU science funding led by Henry Markram. At Manchester we have a special version of the world's most common chip (the ARM, 20 billion in existence and counting) that is exactly what Henry needs to do extensive simulation of brains.

    By joining Henry, we combine the strengths of Manchester in chip design, with Henry's expertise in Neuroscience. The overarching idea is that we will get a handle on the connections between the various diseases of the brain; if this leads to us getting a handle on one of the more commonly occurring of the 600 currently known brain problems, the economic impact will be immense. Consider the economic impact of a cure for major depression or schizophrenia.

    Mr Willetts is on record as asking why coming first in research is so important. One feature of the international agreement that would govern our interactions with Henry is that all Intellectual Property generated by the entire project is available to all of the partners. In other words, if this project generates an effective treatment for schizophrenia, any UK partners will share the profits.

    Now the fly in the ointment is that the collaboration agreement requires matching national funding for the money that the EU science budget puts up. And, as we are all aware, Germany is probably the only EU country that can easily fund that level of commitment. France and Spain will try to keep up with the German Joneses; after all, by piggy-backing EU funds onto their own science budget, they get a gearing effect, by effectively doubling their science funds.

    But what is the UK view? I've tried asking EPSRC, but they're naturally prevaricating until after the Public Sector Review.

    So, now we have to ask: if I wish to complete this work, would I be better off joining Henry in Lausanne? Or, an alternative form of the same question: "Should the results be handed to Swiss or UK big pharma?"

  • Comment number 4.

    SUSAN WATTS SHOULD CONTACT ALL THE AMERICAN 'FOR TRUTH' GROUPS; DIGEST AND REPORT. (#1)

    Remember Sir Humphrey said things denied thrice, in politics, are true? Well Obama has denied 9/11 at least three times. A few emails from Susan Watts to America, will give her a dossier far more reliable than anything dreamed up by New Labour.

    9/11 WAS DEMOLITION - ALL THREE TOWERS. The official investigation did not lie - IT DID NOT INVESTIGATE THE ACTUAL COLLAPSES - AT ALL!

    Susan: Gravity just does not have the abilitiy to do what was done on 9/11. Time to join the winning team.

    Newsnight: why lag behind the curve? Those who have eyes to see and minds to analyse KNOW 9/11 was DEMOLITION. Are you still scared Alastair will come round shouting? As Mandy would say - "Diddums".

  • Comment number 5.

    SUSAN WATTS SHOULD CONTACT ALL THE AMERICAN 'FOR TRUTH' GROUPS; DIGEST AND REPORT. (#1)

    Remember Sir Humphrey said things denied thrice, in politics, are true? Well Obama has denied 9/11 at least three times. A few emails from Susan Watts to America, will give her a dossier far more reliable than anything dreamed up by New Labour.

    9/11 WAS DEMOLITION - ALL THREE TOWERS. The official investigation did not lie - IT DID NOT INVESTIGATE THE ACTUAL COLLAPSES - AT ALL!

    Susan: Gravity just does not have the ability to do what was done on 9/11. Time to join the winning team.

    Newsnight: why lag behind the curve? Those who have eyes to see and minds to analyse KNOW 9/11 was DEMOLITION. Are you still scared Mr Angry will come round shouting? As Mandy would say - "Diddums".


 

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