Monday June 21, 2004
Government funds worth £1.5m will go into a new centre to develop stem cell treatments for diabetes and diseases of the brain, the Medical Research Council announces today. Within five years, patients with otherwise incurable diseases could be testing new and revolutionary treatments.
Stem cells are the microscopic agents that turn a fertilised egg into a fully developed human made up of 100 trillion cells of more than 200 different kinds. The use of human embryo stem cells in research was backed by free votes in Parliament, two rounds of public consultation and a commission of inquiry. But many still think it an ethical step too far.
Although now authorised in Britain, such research remains legally difficult in the US, with President George Bush opposing it. Professor Roger Pedersen, one of the leaders in the field, migrated from California to take advantage of freedom to research on stem cells in the UK.
"We think the UK is in a position to lead the world.," said Prof Pedersen. "Thousands of people live with the effects of juvenile diabetes, even though they take insulin, and therapies for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis also fall far short of a cure."
Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said: "Stem cell science offers enormous hope for the future treatment of many life-threatening illnesses."
Stem cells could be the ultimate in self-help. In theory, people with damaged hearts or failing brains could be treated with injections of stem cells carrying their own DNA, which would then go on to make new heart muscle or fresh nerve cells. There have been dramatic experiments in which bone marrow stem cells have "become" heart cells, and human fat cells have switched to bone, muscle and cartilage tissue. Britain has just opened the world's first stem cell bank to collect hundreds of different stem cell types for research and medical experiment.
But the scientific challenge - and the moral argument - has centred on the use of human embryo stem cells, either taken from embryos left over after fertility treatment, or created by the kind of cloning techniques that led to Dolly the Sheep. A Korean team announced the first cloned human embryo in February. And a University of Newcastle team could be the first to get permission to begin so-called "therapeutic cloning" in Britain.
Prof Pedersen's new MRC Cambridge Centre for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine will ultimately cost £16.5m. It will be backed by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and other charities as well as government funds. Its first challenge will be to understand what Prof Pedersen calls "stemness" - the mysterious ability of embryo stem cells to become blood, muscle, fat, bone, organs, nerves, teeth, hair, skin, nails and so on.
Juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's are the centre's first disease targets. This is because they could be treated by injections of purified stem cells of just one type. Insulin-producing cells could be injected anywhere in the body, and perhaps work for years. Cells that produce dopamine - the substance missing in Parkinson's disease - would have to be injected into precisely the right places in the brain but these, too, might help stricken humans walk and talk normally again.
"We are intent upon starting human trials at the earliest possible date.
This requires that we understand the basic properties of stem cells and
that is the purpose of this programme," Prof Pedersen said. "But we expect
to be preparing patient's therapies within five years."
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