Brussels, 23 Jun 2004
Cambridge University has announced that it will open a centre for human embryonic stem cell research that will develop treatments for a range of currently incurable diseases.
With a budget of 16.5 million GBP (25 million euro), the centre will be the world's largest for this type of research. The UK's decision to build the centre follows the establishment of a national stem bank, which stores hundreds of different stem cell types for future use in transplant medicine.
'The coordinated effort on the part of the UK stem cell enterprise sets the UK aside as the place to do this research,' said Professor Roger Pedersen, the future director of the centre. 'It really makes the UK the leading country.'
Indeed, in the last decade, stem cell research has become one of the most promising developments in modern medicine, and it is hoped this will lead to treatments for chronic disorders ranging from brain disease to diabetes, multiple sclerosis and even spinal injuries.
The first challenge will be to understand what Professor Pedersen calls 'stem-ness', - the ability of embryo stem cells to become every kind of human tissue such as blood, muscle, fat, bone, organs, nerves, teeth, hair, skin, nails and so on.
'We want to use state of the art robotics to take stem cell research into the 21st century,' said Professor Pedersen.
It is envisaged that future transplant operations using stem cells will repair damaged tissue or organs in situ rather than attempting their complete replacement using donated organs. In theory, a patient with, for example, a damaged heart, could be given injections of stem cells carrying his or her own DNA, which would then go on to create new heart muscle.
Research on stem cells is likely to lead to innovative cell transplantation therapies and a greater understanding of the regenerative capacity of the body, explained Professor Pedersen.
Juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's will be the centre's first disease targets. 'Thousands of people live with the effects of juvenile diabetes, even though they take insulin, and existing therapies for Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis also fall far short of a cure,' explained the new director. 'The new centre will help scientists bridge the gap between fundamental stem cell research and clinical application, speeding the delivery of treatments for diseases, many of which are currently incurable, from the lab to the clinic.'
Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the UK Medical Research Council agreed, stating 'stem cell science offers enormous hope for the future treatment of many life-threatening illnesses.'
'We are intent upon starting human trials at the earliest possible date. This requires that we understand the basic properties of stem cells and that is the purpose of this programme,' said Professor Pedersen. 'But we expect to be preparing patient's therapies within five years.'
The new centre will eventually house up to 150 scientists.