Biotech firm claims brain cell growth breakthrough

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Stem Cell Sciences, the pioneering medical research company recently floated on AIM, has secured a licence to a new technique for growing brain cells.

The news comes after its academic partners became the first in the world to create a pure batch of cells that could be capable of becoming tissue for the brain. The move was hailed as a significant breakthrough in the search for treatments for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

Researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Milan said their collaborative work was the first to perfect the growth of neural stem cells. Research in this area has long shown how difficult it is to control cell multiplication and previous attempts have left academics with a mixture of neural stem cells and other more specialised cells.

Stem cells are "master cells" with the ability to grow into skin, bone, brain and other cells found in the body.

Stem Cell Sciences was founded in 1994 to commercialise the work of Austin Smith, currently director of the Institute of Stem Cell Research at Edinburgh, and leader of the team which announced yesterday's breakthrough.

The company will initially use the brain stem cells created by the new technique to test potential new drugs for big pharmaceuticals companies. Professor Smith said: "We're already talking with the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies about taking these cells into screening systems for new drugs. Hopefully that will come to pass within two to three years."

The ultimate aim, however, is to implant the cells direct into the brain in the expectation that they could allow the body to repair the damage caused by Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

Peter Mountford, the chief executive of Stem Cell Sciences, said the use of real human cells was more useful than other laboratory techniques for testing new drugs, and could help cut the number of animal experiments that are necessary before moving new drugs into human trials. He said: "Being able to grow pure brain cells is an exciting prospect for the company."

Stem Cell Sciences raised £6m at the time of its flotation last month, valuing the company at £21m. It was the first of two stem cell research companies to list in quick succession. The second, ReNeuron, was making a return to the stock market after its first outing was hit by scientific setbacks.