Windfall for stem-cell science

MRC distributes £15m to help turn discoveries into applications that advance patient care. Zoe Corbyn reports

April 10, 2008

An extra £15 million in funding for stem-cell research is to be made available over three years by the Medical Research Council, Times Higher Education has learnt.

The additional funding is intended for "translational stem-cell research" aimed at getting basic knowledge out of the lab and into patient care.

The potential for the clinical application of stem cells is much touted. It ranges from nearer-term applications such as using the cells to improve drug development and testing to longer-term possibilities such as organ regeneration and breakthroughs in cancer treatment.

The news comes as stem-cell researchers gather in Edinburgh this week for a national conference. The announcement will be formally made in May.

The MRC is the biggest public funder of stem-cell research in the UK. It channels about £17 million a year into the field, most of which flows to basic rather than translational research as researchers put forward blue-skies ideas.

Researchers had been keenly awaiting a boost to research in the area since the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review, which identified research on stem cells as a key area of national importance. Funding for translation has also been a big part of the MRC's budget increase.

Rob Buckle, the MRC's scientific lead for stem-cell and regenerative medicine, said: "This additional £15 million for translational research is being invested over the next three years to push additional funding into the stem-cell field on top of basic discovery science, which will continue to be funded."

The UK is considered to be a leader in stem-cell research, particularly in the controversial but closely regulated field of embryonic stem-cell research. However, international competition is increasing, and there is heavy investment elsewhere, particularly in the US.

The extra funding is intended to maintain the UK's lead by building capacity and laying the groundwork to accelerate application into the clinic.

"(Stem-cell) research is going to have a major clinical impact at some point. We don't know whether that will be in 10, 20 or 30 years, but we have to ensure that we have the capacity in the UK so that when the next breakthroughs are made we can capitalise on them," Dr Buckle said. "We don't want to headlessly accelerate stem-cell work into the clinic before it is ready, but we want to create momentum that is going to get us there in a well-constructed way."

The extra money will be dispensed through a series of managed calls for research proposals, two of which have already been released.

The first, which closes later this month, will distribute up to £3 million to develop up to 20 new embryonic stem-cell lines for scientists to work with.

The second, which closed last month, will distribute £600,000 for small projects to develop research ideas on "induced pluripotent stem cells", a recent breakthrough in which adult cells were reprogrammed to mimic embryonic stem cells, negating the need to use embryos.

Two other calls are being developed and will be released at the end of the year. "We can't say precisely what they are (yet), but they will be based around trying to translate basic stem-cell research towards application and clinical use," Dr Buckle said.

The MRC also intends to announce more clinical research training fellowships to build research capacity, to set up a new stem-cell research committee to support translation, and to create industrial partnerships.

The plans grew out of the MRC's review of its strategy for funding stem-cell research in the wake of the CSR. The council does not intend to make the results of the review public, Dr Buckle said, but it will publish a report on "infrastructure requirements" in the field.

"The key finding of the review exercise was that a lot more knowledge was still needed at the basic end (across all types of stem-cell research) because the understanding of how we control stem-cell development is still relatively weak ... It also concluded that we needed to work harder with the interdisciplinary links (uniting cell biology, chemical biology and tissue engineering)," he said.

"I think anyone forecasting now would say that the potential for increased funding in stem cells relates mainly to the translational promise," said Roger Pedersen, a professor of regenerative medicine at the University of Cambridge and a member of the UK National Stem Cell Network, which is organising the Edinburgh conference.

"Instead of saying 'long may the stem-cell ship sail wherever she goes', we are asking, 'what do we need to know in order to deliver its cargo of patient care'" Professor Pedersen said.

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