Two studies co-ordinated by researchers at the University of Nottingham have warned that the development of stem cell therapies is coming under threat as a result of the recession. The research, published by the University's Institute of Science and Society, also warns that without urgent changes in public policy, research progress with stem cells will not be converted into new therapies for NHS patients.
The UK has fifteen private companies working on stem cell-based therapies but, as with the two hundred or so other operations worldwide, they are relatively small businesses that potentially lack the necessary capital to bring emergent technologies and new therapies to market. Even where they do manage to do so they lack the budget to ensure a sufficient take-up to generate a good return. This funding gap is being exacerbated by the financial crisis and, though there are a number of therapies in the final stages of clinical trials, future treatments may be at risk as small biotech companies feel the pinch.
Dr Paul Martin, leader of the study, reported: 'Although cell therapy is now established as an important branch of medicine, innovative firms struggle to make money, putting the UK industry in a very vulnerable position in the short term. Unless the situation changes the industry will contract and the progress needed to develop important cell therapies will be adversely affected'. The publication itself warns that the private stem cell industry is at serious risk of 'market failure'.
In addition to the concerns over market capitalisation, NHS procedure was also flagged up as a bar to developing new stem cell therapies. The multiple barriers that exist in the NHS between therapeutic development and treatment of patient are serving to further increase financial pressures on small companies. Dr Martin called for swift action, noting that 'while the Government has identified regenerative medicine as a national priority and the US has lifted its ban on stem cell therapy, urgent public policy action is needed if it is to become a reality'. The study also noted that increased collaboration between clinicians and these small companies would be required if more products were to be brought to the consumer.
The findings of the research, which was tasked with exploring what happens between discovery and commercialisation of innovative stem cell technologies, was scheduled to be discussed at the UK Stem Cell Network's annual conference, organised by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, in Oxford last week.