We have been told for almost a decade that stem cells are the future of medicine: that these tiny clumps of tissue could become a biological “repair kit”, able to regenerate or heal almost any part of the body. But amid all the prophecies of patches for damaged hearts, new nerve cells for spinal injuries or stroke victims, and insulin-producing cells for diabetics, few people predicted that it would be British-based scientists who would be leading the way in mapping out this new terrain.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph last week, Professor Steve Jones bemoaned the failure of genetic research to deliver on its promises. Yet no such complaint could be made about stem cells, the “prototype” cells that are capable of growing into any of the 300 different kinds of cell in the body. As they make the leap from the lab to the clinic, new breakthroughs and developments are emerging from British universities on an almost weekly basis. Scientists, normally hesitant to overstate the significance of any work, are starting to talk about a new era of medicine.
“The technology has come of age a lot faster than people expected,” says Professor Pete Coffey of University College London. “We all saw this as a technology that had potential for clinical application, but it has gone very quickly down that route.”