Bioengineering is being lost in translation, say MPs

25 March 2010

A report by the Science and Technology Committee published today finds that the UK is struggling to translate its excellent research base in bioengineering into health and wealth despite the fact that economic recovery will depend, in part, on exploitation of the UK’s research base.

The UK is a world leader in bioengineering research, but rising competition from abroad means that the UK simply cannot become complacent.

The Chair of the Committee, Phil Willis MP, said:

"The UK has a poor record in exploiting world class bioengineering research to generate health, economic and societal benefits.

"If the Government is serious about bridging the 'valley of death' between basic research and commercial production then it must increase funding for early‐stage translation and ensure that regulations do not needlessly stifle the activities of researchers. The UK must take every opportunity to make the most of its research base."

The Committee looked at three specific areas of bioengineering: stem cells, genetically modified (GM) crops and synthetic biology.

GM crops stuck out as an example of where the Government’s belief in the overall safety and potential benefits of GM crops was at odds with its lack of public championing of the technology.

GM crops are the poor cousin in the bioengineering family, and the Committee strongly urges the Government to signal publicly its support for GM crops as well as improving the regulatory situation at home and in Europe, which would help with translation.

There were good indications that the UK is learning from past experiences with stem cells and GM crops when handling new bioengineering technologies such as synthetic biology, where good research and public engagement activities are occurring.

However, while research is well funded there is not enough forethought about synthetic biology translation. If this is not addressed, synthetic biology runs the risk of becoming yet another story of UK research getting lost in translation.

Image: iStockphoto

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