Newcastle scientists get UK's first stem cell license

08/11/04



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Scientists based at Newcastle's Center for Life (http://www.centreforlife.co.uk) have been granted permission to carry out pioneering research to create stem cells from unfertilized human eggs.

This is the first time in the UK that such a license has been granted. It could help scientists understand how diseases develop and may lead to the development of new treatments for a range of diseases including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and diabetes.

The decision puts the UK at the forefront of global research in this very promising area of medicine and confirms North East England's status as one of the world's emerging centers for biomedical research.

The Newcastle Human Embryonic Stem Cell Group, part of the government sponsored Life Knowledge Park(LKP), is now launching a funding appeal to accelerate research. It is seeking private sector partners to help the UK stay ahead of international competition.



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The group was established two years ago, in a joint venture involving the NHS, Newcastle University and the Center for Life with funding from the Departments of Health and Trade and Industry and from the regional development Agency, One NorthEast. Its remit is to explore the potential offered by stem cells to understand and develop possible new therapies for many serious and debilitating diseases.

In early 2003 it became one of the first two groups in the UK to derive human ES (embryonic stem) cells from spare IVF embryos. Two members of the group, Professor Alison Murdoch of the Newcastle NHS Fertility Centerand Dr. Miodrag Stojkovic, a Reader in Stem Cell Biology and Embryology at Newcastle University, applied to the Human Embryology and Fertilization Authority (HFEA) for the license to undertake 'somatic cell nuclear transfer', as it is known scientifically, in February 2004.

Professor Murdoch said of the decision: "We're absolutely thrilled. The potential this area of research offers is immensely exciting and we are keen to take the work we've done so far to the next level. Since we submitted our application we have had overwhelming support from senior scientists and clinicians from all over the world and many letters from patients who may benefit from the research."

She continues, "This research should give valuable insight into the development of many diseases. Realistically, we have at least five years of further laboratory-based work to do before we move to clinical trials but this could be reduced if we receive additional funding which would allow us to increase the size of our team."

Dr. Stojkovic added, "Newcastle is now the national frontrunner in this area of research but pressure is mounting in the United States for its scientists to be allowed to do this work. If we are to stay at the cutting edge, we must get further financial backing or, as has happened before, the UK will lose out."

Current funders of the research team include the regional development agency One NorthEast, Newcastle University and Newcastle's Center for Life, which was established in 2000 by the Millennium Commissionto foster advances in the life sciences. Its Chief Executive, Alastair Balls said, "Through the Center for Life, we have created an environment that encourages collaboration between scientists such as Professor Murdoch and Dr. Stojkovic. We provide laboratory space, equipment and a network of expertise and support." He added: "This is one of the most innovative cutting-edge endeavors to come out of Britain in the last ten years. We cannot under estimate the importance of staying ahead in a highly competitive field which may provide immense long term benefits for people worldwide and boost the British economy. We are extremely proud that this work is being done on our site."

In principle (ES) cells can be used to make any cell type in the body and so replace cells that have been lost as a result of disease or injury.

The procedure involves reprogramming cells from, say skin tissue of a patient who has lost important cells through disease. The re-programmed cells will re- grow as the cells needed by that patient.

The approved research requires the nucleus from a skin cell to be removed and placed into an unfertilized egg. This egg is then stimulated to divide until a group of cells form. Stem cells are then isolated from this group and have the potential to grow into any cell type in the body. They could be directed to grow into, say, liver cells to cure liver disease, nerve cells to allow patients with spinal injury to walk again or nerve cells to overcome the misery of Alzheimer's disease.

Professor Trevor Page, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for external relations and research at Newcastle University, said: "Stem cell research is one of the most exciting and promising areas of biomedicine, offering the potential of therapies for diseases such as Parkinson's, liver disease, heart disease and dementia. Our success in this field of research demonstrates the highly productive nature of the partnership between Newcastle University's Institute of Human Genetics, the NHS and the Center for Life, not only in the form of cutting-edge research but also in promoting public debate on the ethical issues arising from such work.

Dr. Simon Woods, bioethicist at Newcastle's Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institutesaid: "The granting of this license is a major event, and a reflection of the excellence of the research being carried out at Newcastle University. At PEALS we will continue to stimulate public debate and explore with the researchers the ethical and social questions which arise alongside the technical and scientific issues in this promising area of science.

Professor John Burn, Executive Director of Life Knowledge Parkadded, "These developments vindicate our decision to make stem cells a focus of our investment. The Newcastle team has shown itself to be a world leader in what could be the major field for the life sciences in the coming decade."

Richard Maudslay, One NorthEast Deputy Chairman and Chairman of the region's Science & Industry Council, said: "This announcement is a clear demonstration that the NorthEast can lead in cutting-edge areas of science and that our investments in the region's science base are already reaping rewards. It places the NorthEast on the map as a leading center for biomedical research, which will not only contribute to advancements in understanding and treating debilitating disease, but will lead to job opportunities in the region and attract and retain talented researchers."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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