Doctors sidestep laws to import stem cell 'bank'

By Beezy Marsh, Health Correspondent
(Filed: 20/11/2005)

A vast "bank" of human stem cells is to be brought to Britain, bringing hope of new cures for fatal genetic diseases but fuelling ethical concerns about embryo research.

More than 140 stem cell lines - the building blocks of human life - have been created by specialists in the United States and allied clinics in Russia, Cyprus and Belize using donated IVF embryos.
The private bank, the largest of its kind in the world, will be made available without charge to British researchers hoping to find cures for inherited diseases including the degenerative disorder Huntington's, Duchenne muscular dystrophy and the blood disorder beta-thalassaemia.
A pioneering method of "tailoring" stem cells to a particular patient, which avoids the need for embryo cloning, will also be brought to Britain.
The fertility specialist Mohammed Taranissi will side-step strict laws governing embryo research to import the stem cells next month. Because the embryos were created overseas, a licence from the Government's fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, will not be needed.
The bank and new technology represents a huge scientific resource that will speed up the search for new drugs and cures for devastating conditions.
But last night British experts urged caution, claiming that more information was needed about the bank's stem cell lines before they were used for research purposes.
Stem cells are gathered from embryos at an early stage of development and once removed have the power to keep on growing, creating a "line" that can be frozen and stored.
They can grow into any of the 220 types of tissue in the body, offering scientists the best hope of cures for many disorders.
The new private bank will also contain 18 colonies of embryonic stem cells with defects linked to 10 congenital diseases in addition to more than 120 lines of normal human stem cells - five times the number currently available to British scientists using the Medical Research Council's own, much smaller stem cell bank.
Eleven teams of scientists are currently licensed to produce stem cells in Britain but the availability of such a vast number of stem cell lines could lead to more research units.
Mr Taranissi, of the Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre in London, is the co-owner of the bank which is based at the Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago. Its creator, Yury Verlinsky, gained worldwide acclaim in 2001 when he made the first "designer IVF baby" to save a sick child from a rare blood disorder.
Mr Taranissi said: "I know some people will be concerned but this is a huge potential resource for British science. This stem cell research is the future."
Mr Taranissi has already written to the Medical Research Council offering the stem cell lines, which will be stored at his clinic in central London.
But a leading scientist, Stephen Minger, the director of stem cell biology at the Wolfson Institute and King's College London, said: "Producing stem cell lines is not easy and there may be concerns about quality."
Many ethical campaigners believe that research using embryonic stem cells is morally repugnant because human embryos have to be destroyed to create them.
Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said yesterday: "We have had IVF tourism and the last thing we want is research tourism with an embryonic stem cell bank coming from abroad." A method pioneered by Dr Verlinsky which will also come to Britain with the stem cells avoids the need for repeated embryo cloning in order to obtain stem cells.
The "stembrid" technique takes a stem cell from one of the stored "lines" in the bank. The nucleus of the stem cell is removed and fused with a cell from the body of the patient - such as a skin cell.
The "stembrid" cell then reprogrammes the nucleus of the patient's cell and turns it into a stem cell that is tailored to suit that patient's immune system.