Globalizing and privatizing stem cell research


This image depicts a colony of human embryonic stem cells grown over a period of 10 months in the absence of mouse feeder cells. The cell nuclei are stained green; the cell surface appears in red. Photo: courtesy Ren-He Xu

The politics of stem cell research is a complicated affair. Major advancements have taken place in universities, both public and private, with UW-Madison scientist James Thomson‘s work being a case in point.

Yet the politics of stem cell research, especially in the United States, has made not only scientists nervous, but also generated concern within globally active pharmaceutical firms. The articulation of this concern, with the ramping up of global competition between governments for stem cell-related R&D activity (and the associated scientists), fueled the announcement of an interesting development yesterday:

Stem Cells for Safer Medicines, an independent, not-for-profit company has been founded via a consortium attracting both public and industry investment, including three major international pharmaceutical companies – GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Roche. Initiated by the UK Department of Health (DH) and led by the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), the company is also supported by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), the Scottish government, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

In welcoming the initiative, Science Minister Ian Pearson said:

“I am delighted to announce the launch of this exciting new initiative. It is a core part of the government’s 10-year strategy for stem cell research in the UK.

Where are the universities you ask? Of course they have trained the scientists working for pharmaceutical firms and associated institutions, and they are likely to be the base for some contract research. But as the Financial Times notes on 3 October:

Three companies have set up a consortium with the government to develop stem cells for safety testing of new drugs through a public-private partnership. The launch of Stem Cells for Safer Medicines, or SC4SM, is significant because “big pharma” has been reluctant to engage in embryonic stem cell research.

Companies fear the reaction in markets such as the US, where the use of human embryos is controversial, and they have left the field to universities and biotechnology businesses.

The broadening out of capacity to engage in stem cell research is in some ways to be expected given this politics, and the nature of risk reduction strategies. But it is also worth noting that this is taking place in the lead up to the US electoral cycle, when George W. Bush et al will be on their way out, with expectations (realistic or not!) of an easing up of stem cell research restrictions in the US. But this development is notable for the ways in which public universities are being sidelined, by design or accident, directly or indirectly, in yet more important areas of research.

Kris Olds

Update: see this related entry.

One thought on “Globalizing and privatizing stem cell research

  1. Stem cells are essential for the future of medicine, and it is ridiculous for the Bush Administration to be banning the research. The Bush Administration does not realize that there are plenty of embryos to be found at fertility clinics, just staying frozen for no real reason. The only reason most cells are kept in the liquid nitrogen freezing containers past the birth is that couples are not sure if they will have more kids. In fact, there are an estimated 400,000 embryos awaiting their fate in fertility clinics across the country. There is at least one embryo destroyed every day, disposed in a bio-hazardous waste. If Bush believes embryos are live humans, then how could he allow all these embryos to be destroyed every day? By his standards, at least 365 murders are committed every year without reason. Would it not be better if they happened to further medical research, and cure cancer? Or will more deaths be caused because of his refusal to advance?

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