Pioneering work with human embryonic stem cells could speed up development of new treatments for Parkinson’s and diabetes

Pioneering work with human embryonic stem (hES) cells could speed up the development of new treatments for a range of degenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes according to Dr Stephen Minger of King’s College London, speaking today at the BA Festival of Science.

And with the world’s first centralised stem cell bank the UK is well placed to be a leading player in the field of human regenerative medicine.

Stem cells are cells awaiting instructions to develop into a specific type of cell, such as a heart or liver cell. The cell takes on one of these functions in a process called differentiation. If hES cells could be differentiated into suitable cell types, stem cells might be used in cell replacement therapies for degenerative diseases, or, for instance, to repopulate the heart following damage by a heart attack.

Said Dr Minger: “There is a significant shortage of high quality human ES cell lines and few research groups have experience in the growth and manipulation of these cells. So, it is essential for the development of human stem cell technology, and the larger goal of cellular replacement therapy for human disease, that additional human cell lines are generated.”

The team at King’s College London is one of only a handful of laboratories worldwide with the expertise to create high quality hES cell lines and since generating the UK’s first hES cell line last year they have produced another two new lines.

Working with the Assisted Conception Unit at King’s College London and with local ethical approval and under licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the group has been establishing high quality human ES cell lines from human embryos created during IVF treatment.

“One line was derived from an embryo screened by pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and shown to possess the most common form of Cystic Fibrosis. As the animal models for Cystic Fibrosis do not fully repeat all aspects of the disease, having a human cell line with this genetic defect will be very useful. Researchers will be able to use it to study how the mutation affects cells, screen for new treatments, and also look at gene therapy,” explained Dr Minger.

The King’s team is now attempting to derive additional cell lines encoding important human genetic disorders, such as Huntingdon’s disease, as well as continuing their work on protocols to generate therapeutically important cell populations. These include cells that could be used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord damage, retinal disorders, muscular dystrophy, heart conditions, diabetes and others.

“I’m sure that the pace of research will accelerate as more scientists get involved in this field. The number of research groups using stem cells in the UK has already grown from a handful a few years ago to now about 60. The input of Government money and enlightened regulation processes will ensure that this important work continues,” added Dr Minger.

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