UK fights over nat'l stem cell network

Widespread disagreement over how network should run and what it should do stymies progress

By | July 7, 2006

UK scientists are struggling to create a national network for stem cell science, as a lack of consensus about how such a network should operate is significantly limiting progress. Still, participants have managed to come to agreement over some preliminary steps, suggesting the initiative is moving forward. At a day-long meeting in London on Wednesday, roughly 70 delegates -- including scientists and patient advocates -- contemplated proposals for a new national framework to foster interaction across different stem cell disciplines. But a morning of debate revealed a distinct lack of consensus, said Chris Mason from University College London and co-founder of the London Regenerative Medicine Network. "We really got nowhere," he told The Scientist. "There were a lot of people with a lot of different views in the room." The idea of setting up a national network was proposed in a government report published last December. In that document, a committee led by microbiologist John Pattison recommended the government should invest more and improve coordination across the stem cell field. The Pattison report prompted the government and the Research Councils to seek input from all interested parties on how a stem cell network should run and what it should do. The consultation exercise, run by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, revealed "a lot of conflicting opinion", said Ben Sykes from the BBSRC. Out of the various suggestions, the research council came up with three possible models: a cooperative based at the Research Councils, a cooperative based on an existing regional network, or the establishment of a new learned society for stem cell science. On Wednesday it quickly became apparent that none of those suggestions was going to garner overall approval. "What emerged from the floor was that a fourth model was needed," Sykes said. One issue is that while scientists place a lot of value in collaboration, many think it works best on a regional basis, Mason said. There are already regional networks focused around the east of England, London, Scotland and Sheffield, he said, and "if you've already got networks that are working, why change it." There is also underlying friction between scientists, whose interests are mostly academic, and the government, which is looking for something that will help translate findings into profit, he added. Another source of opposition to the proposal comes from the Regional Development Agencies responsible for boosting the economies of their local area, Mason said -- each of them would rather their own region serves as a biotechnology hub. Without a consensus forming, the meeting's chairman, obstetrician Lord Naren Patel made a suggestion of his own: Establish a small committee representing the stem cell field, chaired by an eminent person from outside it. "When he made that suggestion it got a round of applause that we took as relief and acknowledgement that what he suggested was the way forward," Sykes said. "Lord Patel chaired the meeting very well," said Peter Andrews, a stem cell researcher from Sheffield University who attended. "It came to a conclusion that everyone agreed with." Patel's idea was that the committee should help the structure of a network develop gradually, Andrews said. "The feeling that emerged was that the thing should evolve, rather than be prescribed." BBSRC hopes to publish the details of how the new committee will operate by the end of next week, Sykes said. A timetable for the next steps in the process will be outlined at the same time. Stephen Pincock Links within this article UK Stem Cell Initiative Chris Mason London Regenerative Medicine Network A.Fazackerley, "UK stem cell bank ready to go," The Scientist, September 18, 2003. L. Nelson, "New stem cell recommendations," The Scientist, February 27, 2006. Ben Sykes Lord Naren Patel Peter Andrews

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