Cure for heart disease very close despite poor funding

Doctors at Barts and The London NHS Trust are hoping a four-year research programme in stem cell research will bring them closer to finding a miracle cure for heart disease, but are struggling to raise the money. The programme will involve 600 patients.

Scientists believe they are very close to finding a cure for heart disease; other studies have suggested the damage from heart disease can be repaired by injecting stem cells from a patient's bone marrow into the heart.

A large scale study, which is needed to establish whether the treatment works, might not happen because of lack of funds. The lives of people living with this debilitating condition could be transformed by this revolutionary treatment for heart disease .

Dr Anthony Mathur, a consultant cardiologist at the trust, says raising the money is a problem, and charities find it quite hard to commit large sums of money to one project; industry was not interested in funding research such as this as it might be hard to get a patent.

£200,000 has been raised so far through the Heart Cells Foundation, a charity set up by a patient who under went the treatment in Germany. The trust is also examining the possibility of a government and doing its own fund raising.

Stem cells are premature cells that are capable of becoming any number of mature cells within the body, given the right conditions, drugs often have side-effects; by using a body's own cells that problem is avoided.It could be the future of disease treatment.

Other non-profit research is also at risk, and many private ventures are also struggling to fund research which could lead to revolutionary new treatment for a range of conditions from lung disease to hearing problems.

ReNeuron, a UK bio-pharmaceutical company which is focusing on neurodegenerative diseases, has been forced to look abroad for funding for its foetal stem cell research.

The company was given a £2.2m grant by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) towards a three-year project to develop a stem cell-based treatment for diseases such as stroke, Huntington's disease and Parkinson's disease, but needs to raise the same amount again, and is sceptical whether the money will come from the UK.

Chief operating officer Michael Hunt said: "We are looking to raise money in the US, and perhaps Europe, in the private equity market. "The appetite for funding research such as ours, which is not at the clinical stage, is not what it was in the UK., they have had their fingers burned and are not prepared to take the risk.It is different abroad. They will put money in with the knowledge that there are large returns if the treatment is successful."

This critical situation has prompted UK venture capitalist and bioscientist Professor Sir Chris Evans to call for a foundation to be set up to promote stem cell research. Unless a £100m fund is set up, Britain risks losing its lead position in the world in stem cell research and could fall behind the likes of China, Korea and Japan if scientists are not able to make the step from research to clinical trials much more quickly.

The chairman of the House of Commons science and technology select committee, Ian Gibson agrees and states that the best scientists and the best ideas could all be lost very soon if they are not financially supported. It must become a top priority.

"Other countries are becoming major rivals. We need the government to take much more of a lead to make the case for stem cell research to the public and to industry".

The DTI maintains it is a priority and stem cell research is one of the key areas the government wants to promote and say that commitment is evident in the biotechnology area which will be one of the major beneficiaries of the £10bn funding programme they are about to announce.

They are confident the UK will maintain its position as a world leader.

Professor Richard Gardner, chairman of the Royal Society working group on stem cell research and cloning, believes the scientific community has been well supported by government funding, although he admitted there was always scope for more and he believes researchers have been hampered by regulations.

"We are getting closer and closer all the time with research on heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases, but we are not helped by the amount of regulation. Other countries, where we have seen a lot of progress, do not face the same restrictions although there are some ethical issues with stem cell research and there is a need for rules; in some areas the process could be streamlined. i.e.with research that duplicates previous studies the same strict licensing process applies and is not really necessary.

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