One of the world’s leading authorities on stem cells is quitting the UK for a more balanced and fair scientific environment in France. Dr. Colin McGuckin, professor of regenerative medicine at Newcastle University, announced this week that he is relocating his entire laboratory and staff to France, claiming that there is insufficient support for adult stem cell work in the United Kingdom.
“You would barely know adult stem cells exist”, says Dr. McGuckin, in reference to the unfairly biased environment that exists in the UK, in which the immediate benefits of adult stem cells, which are already being realized in clinics today, are ignored while most attention is instead given to the vague and remote possibility of uncertain future benefits from embryonic stem cells, which would not be attainable until after another decade or more of research, if such benefits are attainable at all.
Dr. McGuckin is the UK’s leading specialist in stem cells of umbilical cord blood origin, having pioneered the method of derivation for these stem cells in 2005. Since then he has been successful in regenerating various types of tissue from umbilical cord blood stem cells, including liver tissue which is one of the most highly specialized and complex types of tissue in the human body. Despite such success, however, his pioneering work has not received as much attention in his homeland as has embryonic stem cell research, to the dismay of many scientists. Not only to Dr. McGuckin but to many other stem cell experts, the unjustified prioritization of embryonic stem cell research above adult stem cell work is a serious issue, especially in light of the fact that adult stem cells have already been used in the clinic with immediate benefits to patients, while embryonic stem cells have proven to be highly problematic in the laboratory and have never advanced beyond the laboratory stage precisely for that reason. By sharp contrast to adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells have never been used to treat anyone for anything, and any possible clinical viability of embryonic stem cells is at least another decade away, if not farther, if such a viability is achievable at all.
Because of such an unfavorable scientific atmosphere in the UK, Dr. McGuckin plans to leave Newcastle University for France where he will reestablish himself at the University of Lyon in January. In addition to his entire laboratory, Dr. McGuckin will also be bringing his research team of approximately ten other scientists with him to France, including Dr. Nico Forraz, another leading stem cell expert. After the relocation to Lyon, Dr. McGuckin and his colleagues will open the world’s largest institute devoted first and foremost to umbilical cord blood and adult stem cell research.
Although adult stem cells are often cited as being ethically and politically noncontroversial, since embryos are not destroyed in the extraction of adult stem cells, it is primarily for scientific reasons that adult stem cells are so successful in treating a wide variety of diseases, while embryonic stem cells are thus far completely unsuccessful in treating anything. Ethics and politics aside, adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells behave very differently from each other, and it is purely because of the scientific nature of these cells, not because of politics or ethics, that adult stem cell therapy is already a clinical reality with immediate benefits, whereas embryonic stem cells are not yet clinically viable and any therapeutic potential which embryonic stem cells might ever possibly offer will require at least another decade of technological advancement, if not more, before embryonic stem cells could even be considered as a clinical therapy. Meanwhile, there are many patients who cannot wait another decade before being treated for their various diseases or injuries, and such patients can benefit from adult stem cell therapy today.
Pointing out that his primary professional obligation is toward the treatment of his patients, Dr. McGuckin states, “The bottom line is that my vocation is to work with patients and help patients and unfortunately I can’t do that in the UK.” France, however, offers “a much better environment to cure and treat more people”, and “a much more reasoned balance” between adult and embryonic stem cell research. Many researchers agree with Dr. McGuckin that in the UK there is an irrational over-emphasis on embryonic stem cell research to the detriment of all else. As Dr. McGuckin states, France “is very supportive of adult stem cells because they know that these are the things that are in the clinic right now, and will be more likely in the clinic. A vast amount of money in the UK from the government has gone into embryonic stem cell research with not one patient having been treated, to the detriment of adult stem cells, which have been severely underfunded.”
Indeed, this is not the first time that the UK has forced a leading stem cell scientist to leave for another country. In 2006, Dr. Miodrag Stojkovic also decided to quit the UK, taking his laboratory and adult stem cell research team to Spain. Consequently, Dr. McGuckin, Dr. Stojkovic and many others are critical not only of UK academics in general, but also of Parliament and the media in the UK, for the unjustified attention that is consistently given to embyronic stem cells at the deliberate and systematic exclusion of adult stem cells.
In addition to suffering from a lack of laboratory space in the UK, Dr. McGuckin says he has been forced to decline an investment offer of 10 million pounds due to a lack of receptivity and organization on the part of Newcastle University. He also states that he has been forced to put more than 1.8 million pounds of grant funding on hold because of insufficient space and facilities in which to conduct the work. According to Dr. McGuckin, “I kept getting told our situation would get better, but it never did.”
Although the pro vice-chancellor for the faculty of medical sciences at Newcastle University, Chris Day, has expressed surprise over Dr. McGuckin’s concerns, and despite disagreement over some of Dr. McGuckin’s claims from organizations such as the UK National Stem Cell Network, many other researchers agree with Dr. McGuckin that there is currently a research environment in the UK which is unjustifiably and irrationally biased in favor of embryonic stem cell research, and that this bias must change toward “more balanced research.” According to Dr. Anthony Hollander, professor of rheumatology and tissue engineering at the University of Bristol, “We desperately need more funding for adult stem cell research because with these cells we really can make a difference to patients’ lives, and we can do it now, not in ten years time as is promised for embryonic stem cells.”
According to the group known as “Comment on Reproductive Ethics” (CORE), the loss of Dr. McGuckin would create a “huge hole” in Newcastle’s research portfolio.