Asia taking the stem cell lead

Researchers in China, South Korea, and Singapore are testing the lead taken by Western countries in the field of stem cell research, according to members of a UK government mission.

Mar 14, 2005
Stephen Pincock

Researchers in China, South Korea, and Singapore are testing the lead taken by Western countries in the field of stem cell research, according to members of a UK government mission.

In September 2004, the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) sent a group of leading figures from the field of stem cell science on a 2-week trip to the three Asian countries to assess the quality of science being done and to evaluate possible commercial opportunities. "The challenge to Western pre-eminence in stem cell research from China, Singapore, and South Korea is real," the group's report concludes.

"It was high-quality science," says Cathy Prescott, from Avlar Bioventures. "There were clearly centers of excellence, particularly for somatic cell nuclear replacement."

The United Kingdom considers itself a leader in the stem cell research field, but some of the country's scientists fear that lead could be squandered because of inadequate funding. A group of financial figures and researchers recently announced plans to establish a £100 million ($187.3 million, US) public-private foundation with the aim of shoring up funding for stem cell research.

In China, the DTI delegates visited Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. "The pattern that emerged was of excellent researchers ... trained overseas and returning to establish new laboratories and institutes," they report.

In Singapore, where the government has made great efforts to woo leading international bioscience researchers, the UK delegation was slightly less impressed. Research in the country's flagship Biopolis hub is mostly led by expatriate Western scientists, they note. The researchers also say they saw less evidence in Singapore of "the drive to the clinic that so characterizes China."

The UK group spent only a day in South Korea and visited just two centers: Woo Suk Hwang's lab at the National University, and the Stem Cell Research Centre directed by Shin Yong Moon. Nevertheless, what they saw was striking. "The Stem Cell Research Centre represents probably the most comprehensive stem cell network in Asia. It has a comprehensive infrastructure supported by an imaginative 10-year funding cycle, which assures stability and far-sightedness while tracking funding to clear milestones and deliverables."