When the international stem cell research race got started at the end of the 1990s, two factors put Britain in a strong position. One was the historical strength of embryology and related sciences in the UK, the other its well-established regulatory framework.

Any researcher working with early human embryos owes an immense scientific debt to Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, the British pair who developed the IVF techniques that led to the birth in 1978 of Louise Brown, the world's first test-tube baby. That led to an intense debate about the ethics of using "spare" embryos for research, culminating in 1984 with Mary Warnock's landmark official report that recommended allowing controlled research on human embryos up to 14 days after fertilisation--a limit that remains a de facto world standard.

Warnock's conclusions were enshrined in law six years later, with the establishment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to regulate the field. So, when human ES cells and cloning came along, it was relatively straightforward for the UK to amend its legislation to allow research for therapeutic purposes on cells derived from human embryos (including cloned embryos) while banning reproductive cloning. Two therapeutic cloning projects are already under way, at Newcastle University and the Roslin Institute.

Although Britain has a vocal anti-abortion lobby opposed to embryo research, it is very much in the minority. In the UK, unlike many other countries, stem cells and cloning are not party political issues. Stem cell researchers who have come to Britain from other countries, such as Roger Pedersen to Cambridge and Stephen Minger to King's College London from the US and Miodrag Stojkovic to Newcastle from Germany, emphasise the importance of the supportive public and political attitude to their work.

The positive attitude of the UK government---and even more enthusiasm from Scotland, which has set out with some success to become a regional hotbed of stem cell science--has already given Britain a good research infrastructure in this field. It has the world's first stem cell bank, which is leading an international initiative to characterise all the ES cell lines now available around the world, identify their salient features and assess the degree of diversity that different lines may exhibit.

Still, the public funding position for stem cell research in the UK is not so rosy by international standards. In 2002 the government announced a £40m ($70m) investment in stem cell science by the country's research councils--and, although this has been supplemented with some further funds, Britain's financial commitment falls short of some of its competitors in the Asia Pacific region as well as individual American states.

Although Britain is home to a few small stem cell companies, such as ReNeuron and Stem Cell Sciences, there is little investment from traditional private sector sources such as venture capitalists and fund managers who see the field as too long-term and risky [see "Tough Cell to Investors"]. In an attempt to fill the funding gap, a powerful group of scientists and business people has set up the UK Stem Cell Foundation, a nonprofit organisation that aims to raise 100m to support the development of stem cell therapies, in collaboration with existing government and charitable programmes.