Research in tissue engineering at Manchester and Liverpool universities is getting Pounds 9.7 million in a bid to keep the United Kingdom at the forefront of technology that could revolutionise health care.
The long-term aim is to grow from a patient's own cells new body parts, including bone, cartilage and, in future, organs such as the heart.
The interdisciplinary research collaboration funding will come from the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. It will fund basic research into rebuilding damaged human tissue.
David Williams, professor of clinical engineering at the University of Liverpool, said: "Most advances in this area are coming from the United States, which has been more prepared to put larger funding into high-risk research. The government is now aware of this."
The general area of research has been controversial because it involves stem-cell engineering. Stem cells are unique because they can replicate themselves to allow tissue growth, and they contain the information needed to allow the body to construct any part of the organism. The main source of these cells is the human foetus. The issues surrounding the supply of stem cells are being examined by the government.
Professor Williams said: "We can't rule out using foetal cells because the long-term aim is to enable a patient's cells to generate the healing. Most people would rather see us doing this because the approach will be more acceptable than our current alternatives. Skin is already achievable, and cartilage and bone are very close. We hope to be constructing muscle and starting on nerves in the next three to six years." Potential benefits include treatment of chronic ulcers, degenerative diseases, trauma injuries and body reconstruction for cancer patients.
Britain then has to capitalise on the research findings to stay ahead in the field. In the UK, industrial partners can be difficult to find, and many of the best ideas are developed overseas.