US legal row 'Scotland's chance to lead the world in stem cell race'

LEGAL wrangles in the United States over stem cell technology are creating an opportunity for Scotland to become a world leader in the sector, according to experts.

Firms in America are now looking to develop their stem cell treatments abroad because the US government won't fund the research, which has proved controversial in some parts of the world.

Philippa Montgomerie, an Edinburgh-based partner at international law firm DLA Piper, said her firm's American clients are hunting for locations where they can carry out their work.

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She believes Scotland is well-placed to capitalise on the trend because of the close working relationship between the Scottish universities and the NHS.

The partnership between academics and clinicians in Scotland makes it easier for large pharmaceutical companies to form joint ventures to develop new drugs, she said. Such joined-up working also gives Scotland an advantage over England, where the NHS and universities do not enjoy such close links.

Montgomerie's comments come after ReNeuron, an Aim-listed life science company, began the world's first clinical stem cell trial last month. The tests, at Glasgow's Southern General Hospital, involved injecting stem cells into the brain of a stroke patient.

Stem cells have the potential to be turned into any other type of cell in the human body, allowing the development of treatments for diseases including cancer, heart failure and Parkinson's.

Montgomerie said: "Companies like Roslin Cells and Cellartis are in a great position to collaborate with bigger firms on stem cell projects.

"ReNeuron has chosen to site its clinical trials in Glasgow for a good reason - Scotland is a well-regarded place for carrying out this work. When I speak to my colleagues in the US, they say their clients are frustrated. While there is still privately funded work going on there, it looks like there won't be federally-funded work for the time being."

American judges had previously banned the federal government from funding research using human embryonic stem cells, which are taken from unused eggs from IVF clinics.

Montgomerie said a decision due this month from a US appeals court is unlikely to help clarify the position on government funding for research and that fresh legislation might be needed in America to clear up the confusion.

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Will McIntosh, a partner at law firm Brodies, agreed that Scotland had a "window of opportunity" while legal arguments continued in the US. But he said more now needed to be done to promote Scotland to international players as a place to do business.

McIntosh said: "Make no mistake, if the legal situation is resolved in the US and more money is pumped in then they could race ahead of us."

He added that it was important to remind global firms about Scotland's life science successes, such as Dolly the sheep - the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell.

Kevin Perrie, chief executive of the Scottish Stem Cell Network (SSCN), said the body was working with Scottish Development International (SDI) to promote the nation.

"We've been to stem cell events in the United States and we're focusing heavily on China and Japan, with a high level mission heading to the Far East in the coming weeks," he explained. "We also recently hosted a visit from Indian stem cell researchers who are interested in partnering with Scottish companies. We can't just dine out on Dolly the sheep for the next decade - we need to form partnerships with other upcoming countries."