King's College London made history this week by announcing that it has generated and kept alive the first human embryonic stem (hES) cells in the UK.
Researchers at the college's neuroscience research department have managed to stabilise a line of cells cloned from a single human embryo cell.
Their achievement puts the UK among a handful of countries at the forefront of the field. It heralds an era of cheap and readily available stem cells for UK and European researchers.
Cells will be available to researchers in a couple of months or so when the King's scientists have grown sufficient numbers to deposit some in the UK stem-cell bank, run by the Medical Research Council. They will then be available, at minimal cost, to researchers.
Stem cells have huge potential for developing treatments for many diseases.
Their ability to develop into almost any cell in the body means they can be grown in culture to replace damaged cells.
Stephen Minger, one of the King's research team and an expert in neural injury and repair, said: "We are very excited about this development.
Generating additional lines is very important. Availability is a big issue, and more lines will mean more genetic diversity."
A second UK group based at Newcastle University also claims to have a successful culture of cells, but it has yet to publish.
The first hES cell lines were established in 1998. There are just nine lines available across the whole world, the majority from Singapore, and a small vial of cells can cost up to £4,000.
Dr Minger's group used 58 embryos to generate three stem-cell populations, but two were lost at an early stage. He said this was fewer embryos than most other groups, who had used hundreds but had still been unsuccessful.
He attributed the project's success to the use of donated embryos that had been screened for genetic disorders and proved to be high risk, rather than discarded embryos from in vitro fertilisation, which may not be of sufficient quality.
MRC chief executive George Radda said: "This is an exciting day for UK science. Stem cells offer new hope for treatments, and even cures, for many common diseases, but a huge amount of research is needed to understand how they work and how their potential could be harnessed."