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May 17, 2010

Stem cell science across the pond: organizations in the UK

by David Kent

After being spoiled with six years’ worth of camaraderie with the stem cell community in Canada via the Stem Cell Network’s annual meeting and countless other interactions, I recently made the journey from  Connie Eaves’ lab in Vancouver to pursue post doctoral research at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research under Tony Green’s supervision. I came with a very open mind, but knew that the Canadian network was going to be a hard act to follow. Almost immediately upon touching down, I went on a hunt for all things stem cell in Ol’ Blighty.

It appears the UK has an extremely vibrant stem cell community that can address the scientific questions along with pursuing an understanding of the complicated ethical, legal, and social issues that arise. They have also recognized that public outreach is a critical component of well-supported science and science policy. Some selected organizations that showcase the breadth and depth of the UK’s stem cell involvement are:

  • The UK National Stem Cell Network is a great politically-driven initiative, founded on the recommendation of the Government-commissioned Pattison Report which presented a 10-year vision for stem cell research in the UK. The UKNSCN brings together members of the stem cell community and is the primary disseminator of information regarding UK stem cell research to the public and to international scientists.
  • The UK Stem Cell Foundation, which among other things, hopes to raise a £100 million endowment to fund research and scientists where funding gaps exist.
  • The Social Science Stem Cell Initiative recognizes the importance of getting a handle on the social, ethical and legal issues and aims to build research capacity for high-quality social science research in the area of stem cells. 
  • The UK Stem Cell Bank was established to be a repository for stem cells of all sources and provides quality controlled cells to researchers across the country.

On top of this, individual cities have very active stem cell communities. In Cambridge alone, a tiny town of 100,000, there is a monthly Stem Cell Club which is an informal evening gathering of academics from all over town with excellent local speakers and occasional imports (e.g.: last month featured new investigator Steve Pollard, clinician scientist Brian Huntly and Anna Philpott speaking about embryonic, blood, and neural stem cells respectively). Also in Cambridge there is a government-funded Stem Cell Initiative which engages basic and clinical scientists with an interest in biomedical translation of stem cell and regenerative medicine research.  

With all of this activity, it will be difficult to attend everything, but where possible, I’ll get there and will report via this blog. Look forward to profiles of research findings, social and political groups and their activities, and reports on major talks and conferences from the UK and mainland Europe.

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UK was a pioneer of discovering the New World and conquering new lands many eons ago. Now they have taken the same pioneering spirit and are moving into a new medical frontier that is exciting but also fraught with many questions. The community is to be commended but also cautioned to bear in mind that a set of ethical standards need to be carefully subscribed to.

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