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US Rules Creating Stem Cell Brain Drain?

Doctors in Germany report they have repaired a man's failing heart using stem cells taken from his bone marrow. Lured by such progress, reports Tom Fenton, some top American scientists are moving across the Atlantic.

Stem cells are what the scientific buzz, and religious and ethical fuss, are all about. They are the basic cells from which all other cells in the body develop. The ReNeuron company in England is growing cells from the brains of human fetuses in incubators. They have been manipulated so they will live and reproduce forever. The aim is to coax them into becoming specialized brain cells.

"We have developed 150 cell lines from the human fetal brain," says Dr. Martin Edwards, CEO of ReNeuron.

Edwards used to work in America. He returned to Britain to launch a stem cell research company with the aim of bringing treatments for brain disorders to market. He knows a number of American scientists are planning to come here as well.

"The uncertainty in the US, particularly in regard to academic researchers, about the availability of federal funding, is making people think hard about whether the US is the place to be."

Already, one prominent American researcher, Roger Pedersen of the University of California, is headed for Britain and other leading scientists are now worried about a brain drain.

"I think it's a shame," says Dr. Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford University Medical School. " I think it's a shame that our best stem cell scientists are going to feel that they need to move to another country to pursue their research program."

And Britain is ready to welcome them with open arms.

The prospects for the business of stem cell research seem greater in Britain right now because the British have discussed all the issues, the debate here is less heated, and they've developed rules, overseen by the head of one of the Oxford University colleges, that most people seem comfortable with.

Ruth Deech and her government-appointed committee regulate all human embryo research in Britain, both public and private. She sees immense benefits from Britain's pragmatic approach.

"There will be spin-off companies, quite rightly so, which will bring these benefits not just to this country, but I hope all over the world," says Deech, chairman of the regulatory authority.

Britain led the way more than 20 years ago with the first test tube baby, Louise Brown. It may well lead the way again if American scientists emigrate to the more supportive climate in the Britain.
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