Stem cell centre to give UK world lead

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The Independent Online

Britain is set to become the world leader in stem cell medicine with the announcement today of a new £16m research institute for developing the transplant operations of the future.

The decision to build a national centre for stem cell research follows the establishment of a national bank of stem cells to hold future "lines" of cells for use in transplant medicine.

Professor Roger Pedersen of Cambridge University, who will be director of the new institute, said that no other stem-cell institute would be able to match its scale or expertise in an area of science that could revolutionise the treatment of incurable diseases. "By pulling together the intellectual capital here in Cambridge, this would make us the largest centre focused on stem cell research anywhere in the world," he said.

In less than 10 years, stem cells have become one of the most promising developments in modern medicine with the hope that they will be used to treat chronic disorders ranging from brain disease to diabetes.

Stem cells, especially those derived from early embryos, are generalised cells that can develop into any one of the scores of specialised tissues of the body such as nerves or muscles. It is envisaged that future transplant operations using stem cells will repair damaged tissues or organs in situ rather than attempting their complete replacement using donated organs.

Professor Pedersen said: "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.

"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."

The new centre will eventually house up to 150 scientists and is being paid for by a £9.3m university grant, a £1.5m grant from the Medical Research Council, a £2.8m private endowment and smaller donations from charities such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Support for the centre has come from Professor Stephen Hawking, author of the best-selling book A Brief History of Time, who suffers from motor neurone disease and is confined to a wheelchair.

"If DNA is the software of genetics, then stem cells are its hardware. What better place to study them than in Cambridge, where the structure of DNA was discovered," Professor Hawking said in a statement.

Professor Pedersen said: "The institute has two purposes. Its mission is to bring together basic stem-cell biology with the clinical directive to deliver this to the patient. There is a great deal that we don't know about stem cells which revolves around understanding what is this capacity for specialisation that stem cells have and maintain."

One of the immediate aims of the institute is to devise a way of growing stem cells in the laboratory that would be pure enough to be classed as clinical-grade material. "A clinical-grade stem-cell line is one that can be used in patients for transplantation. It's pristine and has a history that is unblemished, without exposure to anything that could be hazardous," he said.

Many existing stem-cell lines - continuously growing cultures - have been grown using cells from laboratory mice. They would not be suitable for transplant operations because of the risk of contamination.

"You would not consider anything exposed to a mouse or any other laboratory animal as a clinical-grade line. Some people aspire to do that; I would not because I would not want to be responsible for a pandemic," said Professor Pedersen, an American who came to Cambridge because of the opposition to working on human embryonic stem cells in the US.