£20 million funding for stem cell research in the UK

Scientists at Oxford will benefit from a share of a £20 million cross-research council investment in stem cell research which was announced last month. The funding promises to speed the development of new treatments and cures from the laboratory to the clinic. Professor Herman Waldmann's research group has received nearly £300,000 for their research into immune response to stem cell therapy, and Professor Chris Graham's research group has received nearly £200,000 for their research into reprogramming cell nuclei.

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.

Professor Waldmann, Dr Paul Fairchild, and their colleagues will investigate ways of overcoming the body's immune responses to new cells. As with conventional tissue or organ transplantation, one of the main issues for the success of therapeutic transplants of stem cells, or tissues derived from them, is that of rejection by the immune system. Unless donor and recipient are perfectly matched, grafts are likely to be rejected unless some form of immunosuppression is applied.

The team wishes to explore a range of strategies to ensure the acceptance of partially matched tissues/cells either by eliminating their ability to induce rejection or by reprogramming the host immune system to tolerate them.

One approach makes use of tissues derived from Embryonic Stem (ES) cells (or ES-derived tissues) which have been genetically modified) which lack this ability to stimulate rejection. The second uses a method of making the patient tolerant using cells derived from ES cells which have the same characteristics as that of the tissue to be transplanted. The third uses antibodies that, given short-term, can give long-term tolerance to mismatched transplants.

Professor Graham and his colleagues Professor Kay Davies and Dr Matthew Wood also aim to avoid any immune response to transplants, but from a different starting point. They will use the patient's own cells to provide the genetic material of the transplant in much the same way that a patient with burns receives transplants of skin from other parts of their own body. The novel twist is that the patient's nuclei must be reprogrammed to form muscle progenitors by exposure to muscle cytoplasm. At this stage the work will be exploratory, and success will be scored by culturing mouse cells in a laboratory incubator.

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 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).

Speaking on behalf of Research Councils UK, Professor Colin Blakemore said: 'If we can harness the potential of these incredible cells, we could be standing on the threshold of what may one day be the greatest contribution 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.'

A wide variety of research of stem cells is going on across the University: the Medical School also has its own stem cell initiative, headed by Professor David Barlow in Obstetrics & Gynaecology.

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