US backer pulls plug on stem cell centre


A PIONEERING Scottish centre for stem cell research has suffered a severe setback after its American backer scaled back its funding, complaining of an unfriendly regulatory regime in Britain.

US company Geron bought Roslin Bio-Med, a spin-out from the Roslin Institute, in 1999. But Tom Okarma, Geron's chief executive, said no more commercial staff would be employed until the funding and regulatory climate in the UK improved.

He accused the government of paying lip service to stem cell research - which can be used to tackle cancer and Parkinson's disease - and smothering research in regulatory hurdles.

Brad Hoy, Geron's senior director in Scotland, has left to join a biotechnology company in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His two predecessors also left. All three were said to have become frustrated in the job. It is currently being run from America as a laboratory but not as a commercial business.

Geron applied to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for licences to carry out work on human stem cells almost two years ago.

A licence to use the cells for research was granted after 18 months, but the company is still awaiting a clinical trials licence.

Speaking from his home in California, Okarma said: "We have become frustrated with the lip service the government pays to stem cell research. They say the UK has a friendly environment for this type of work but it took us a year and a half just to get a licence for research work."

Last year Tony Blair said he wanted to make the UK the best place in the word to conduct stem cell research. But Okarma said regulatory hurdles made a mockery of the prime minister's objective. "My guess is that it is easier for the government to talk the talk than to walk the walk," he said.

Geron maintains a laboratory at Roslin which uses laboratory staff on secondment from the institute. Okarma said scientific research work at the laboratory would continue indefinitely.

Hoy's departure is a blow to Scotland's fledgling biotechnology industry, which sees the Roslin Institute as its spiritual home. Last week, another Roslin spin-out, PPL Therapeutics, began the slaughter of 3,000 genetically modified sheep after failing to raise cash to develop its lead product, a treatment for emphysema.

Hoy, a former finance director of Cyclacel, the Dundee cancer treatment specialist, was hired to bring investment to Roslin.

But Okarma said the tough funding climate for biotechnology in the UK had made his task virtually impossible. He added that scientists in the UK appeared unwilling to accept the country's problems. "Frankly, the scientific community are asleep at the switch," he said.

Despite Geron's problems, the UK is still seen by outsiders as a benign place to carry out stem cell research.

Some countries object to the practice because it involves taking material from aborted embryos. One international stem cell firm is currently planning to move its headquarters to Edinburgh to take advantage of the UK's liberal attitude.