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Richard Branson Gets Into The Genetics Business

Sunday, February 4th, 2007 at 10:08 by Sue Stewart

On Wednesday night I fell asleep with the radio still on.  I woke up on Thursday morning to an announcement, something along the lines of:  “Mumble mumble…. Sir Richard Branson launched a new company mumble blood mumble of newborn babies.”

You can imagine my surprise.  Just as I was about to dig out my best sackcloth habit and sturdiest crucifix, I remembered that I didn’t have time to excoriate Sir Richard Mammon for his dastardly dealings as I had an appointment with the dentist, but I resolved to take him to task just as soon as I could.

Getting back some time later,  I realised that I hadn’t actually heard the full announcement.  I know it’s not really necessary, but trying to get some details straight is a little foible of mine.  I don’t always manage it, but I do try.  So I had another look.

It turns out that Sir Richard isn’t sacrificing newborn babies after all.  Or even virgins.  He’s launched a company that will offer parents the opportunity to save the blood (and, consequently, the stem-cells) from their baby’s umbilical cord on the off chance that:

1) Stem-cell research reaches the point where the prospect of cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease etc., actually becomes a reality. 

2) Their baby, once adult, needs some of its stem-cells to benefit from one of these cures.

Any profits from the business will go to charities involved in stem-cell research, after returns have been made to other business investors of course, and the NHS will be granted access to some of the samples.  All it will take is around £1,500 per baby and a yearly fee to keep the blood in storage and Bob’s your uncle. Or Richard’s your surrogate doc.

There’s lots of huffing and puffing going on about it, of course.  Speaking for the National Childbirth Trust,  Belinda Phipps has said, “The evidence does not show benefits for the baby.”  

Well, no - surely the idea is that the baby won’t need the cells for quite a few years yet?

“There is currently no evidence to recommend private cord-blood banking for genetic conditions,” was the contribution of Dr Marita Pohlschmidt, Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s director of research. 

Some consultants are concerned that midwives and obstetricians are already ultra-busy dealing with the birth, so giving them even more to do isn’t exactly helpful.  Still others worry that the procedure to take the blood could cause an increase in foetal stress and its related conditions.  All of this is understandable, but doesn⿿t quite explain why the scheme has caused such a sharp intake of breath.  It’s not even news, technically.  It came out at Davos (yes, that again) around 26 January and has probably been known to quite a few people for much longer than that.

It’s not the first time that Branson’s name has been linked with the subject, either.  Back in December 2004, when Britain was “at the cutting edge”, moves were afoot to set up a charitable foundation and he was one of those involved.  Britain being at the cutting edge of research sounds sexy, after all, and this government likes to sound sexy.  Early in 2005 the UK Stem Cell Foundation was set up, “personally endorsed by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer” as its home page proudly, and rather sadly, announces.

Unfortunately, by December 2005 things didn’t seem to have moved on much.   (Is that the Gleneagles G8 summit and its big promises I see hovering overhead?) In 2004 the researchers said they could do with £100M, please.  A year later, the government finally committed to - oh, £2M.  Over 2 years: £1M per year.  If private investors coughed up the same amount. Not quite the £50M from each sector that had been predicted.

Business investment was a bit more forthcoming, but not much.  I  suppose the Foundation’s front man Sir Chris Evans being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office and arrested in the “cash for hounours” investigations didn’t exactly help.

By November 2006, the UKSCF was out of money and no longer issuing press releases.  Their website is still linking to press pieces, though, so I don’t think they’ll mind me quoting their chairman Sir Richard Sykes’s comment to the Telegraph:  “We believed we would get that matching money from the Government because they were very gung ho about stem cells…[but] it is all bloody noise.  They don’t do anything.'’   Couldn’t have put it better myself.

So what’s all this got to do with Sir Richard Branson?  Well, it seems that now he’s going it alone, he’s being portrayed as a power-crazed Blofeld type, setting people up with promises of cures he can’t deliver,  when all he’s actually offering is a relatively simple service. 

I don’t agree that it’s up to business to finance research, but this government has once again quietly melted into the background, conveniently forgetting promises made, so it seems that business backing is the only kind this research is going to get. 

They are stealthily depressing us into accepting that it’s not the job of government, our government, to provide funds for medical research.  For our benefit.   Research isn’t cheap, after all.  Not like the Millennium Dome, the Millennium Bridge, Wembley Stadium, the 2012 Olympics, etc.  (Of course, we don’t mention the war…)

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One Comment on “Richard Branson Gets Into The Genetics Business”

  1. Doccy Says:

    “this government likes to sound sexy”

    Dammit! Now I’ve got images of Tony dancing along to ‘Sex Bomb’ stuck in my head!!


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