A ₤16.5 million investment in stem cell research was announced today, 27th May, promising to speed the development of new treatments and cures from the laboratory to the clinic. In total, 57 multidisciplinary research grants have been awarded as part of the new monies allocated via the 2002 Government Spending Review to the UK Research Councils.
Stem cells have the unique ability, when appropriately stimulated, to renew themselves and give rise to other specialised cell types. This gives them the revolutionary potential to repair or replace tissues and organs damaged by disease or disability, offering new hope of treatments and cures for many common diseases including diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. But a huge amount of research is needed to understand how stem cells work and how their potential could be harnessed.
The strategic grants will ensure that the UK is at the forefront of the international research community working on stem cells, and is in a position to lead on the considerable health and economic implications the field promises for the future. They have been awarded by five of the UK Research Councils: the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)*, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Council’s (CCLRC).
Some of the awards are aimed at delivering important new treatments for major diseases and disabilities. For example, Dr Geoffrey Raisman at the MRC’s National Institute of Medical Research will take forward work seeking to repair the human spinal cord, offering hope to people with spinal injuries. Dr Raisman will build on the recent discovery that stem cells from the lining of the nose have the unique ability to regenerate throughout adult life and on his recent work in rats, which indicates that it might be possible to stimulate regeneration of the human spinal cord by grafting human nasal stem cells into the damaged areas.
Other grants will generate new insights into basic stem cell biology to increase understanding of how stem cells function. Professor Ann Logan from the University of Birmingham will be exploring the extent of ‘plasticity’ of adult stem cells – the ability of the cells from one adult tissue to generate the differentiated cell types of other tissues. In particular, she will investigate the potential for using cells from the hormone-producing parts of the adult pancreas to regenerate damaged brain tissue. Establishing the inherent versatility of adult progenitor cells from different tissues will have important implications for transplants using tissue from the same individual. As well as helping cure accidental or pathological neurodegenerative diseases, such as brain and spinal cord injury and Alzheimer’s disease, this technique could also be used to treat diseases affecting the pancreas, including diabetes.
A Human Embryonic Stem Cell Resource Centre, led by Professor Peter Andrews, will be funded at Sheffield University. The Centre will accelerate progress in embryonic stem cell research by providing access for UK researchers to expertise, resources, facilities and training. Technologies specifically for working with embryonic stem cells will also be developed, along with a website and database to collate and provide easy access to technical information and protocols developed at the Centre and elsewhere. The Centre should enhance the skills base and standards of the sector and thereby reduce the use of human tissue.
Speaking on behalf of Research Councils UK, Professor Colin Blakemore said:
“It would be wrong to raise expectations of immediate benefits for human patients, but if we can harness the potential of these incredible cells, we might be standing at the threshold of one of the greatest contributions science has made to human health. The funds announced today will enable the UK’s finest scientists to further explore the potential of stem cells to treat diseases from cancer to Parkinson’s and from diabetes to heart disease.” http://www.mrc.ac.uk/