Brussels, 01 Jun 2004
The UK Research Councils have awarded grants to 57 new stem cell research projects, representing a combined investment of 16.5 million GBP (25 million euro).
The new funds were earmarked for research into the body's 'master cells' as part of the UK government's 2002 spending review. The move represents the second major investment in the country's strategy to place itself at the forefront of this area of research, following the inauguration of the UK stem cell bank in May.
Scientists believe that given stem cells' unique ability to renew themselves and develop into all types of cells in the body, they potentially offer the hope of new treatments and cures for many common diseases. However, a great deal more research is needed to understand exactly how stem cells work and how they can be used to deliver practical results.
Speaking on behalf of the UK Research Councils, Professor Colin Blakemore said: 'It would be wrong to raise expectations of immediate benefits for human patients, but if we can harness the potential of these incredible cells, we might be standing at the threshold of one of the greatest contributions science has made to human health.'
The largest of the 57 grants is a 1.5 million euro investment to establish the human embryonic stem cell resources centre based at Sheffield University. The centre will provide UK researchers with access to expertise, resources, facilities and training. The types of resources to be made available will include specific technologies for working with embryonic stem cells, and a website and database to collate and provide access to information and protocols developed at the centre and elsewhere.
As well as investments in stem cell research infrastructure, further grants have been awarded to tackle specific diseases and disabilities. For example, the National Institute of Medical Research will receive 240,000 euro to investigate how stem cells may be used to repair spinal cord damage. The project will build on recent work by the Institute's Dr Geoffrey Raisman that suggests that it may be possible to stimulate the regeneration of the human spinal cord by grafting human nasal stem cells into the damaged areas.
Fundamental research into the functioning of stem cells will also be covered, for example, through a project to identify and understand the mechanisms that switch stem cells on and off in the adult human brain. Previous work by Dr William Gray at the University of Southampton has shown that these stem cells are controlled by a neurotransmitter released from nerve cells in the brain. His team hopes that by further investigating the relationship between nerve cells, neurotransmitters and stem cells, new targets for drug therapies for depression and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's may emerge.
'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,' concluded Professor Blakemore.
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