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.”
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Of all people, Prof Coffey should know. Last week, he signed a deal with one of the world’s biggest drug companies, Pfizer, to develop a treatment for a common cause of blindness. He has shown it is possible to use stem cells to halt the damage caused by age-related macular degeneration, a condition affecting more than 500,000 Britons, in which the cells that support the retina are progressively lost.
It follows other remarkable accomplishments. Researchers at Sheffield University last month announced that they had managed to grow the tiny hair cells found in the ear, which could one day be used to repair hearing in deaf patients. Doctors at Moorfields Eye Hospital have also successfully grown new corneas for patients blinded in accidents. And researchers from Bristol, who were behind the first successful transplant of a human windpipe, constructed at the end of 2008, last week announced plans for a clinical trial to repair cartilage-based sports injuries.
“The amount of work that is going on is incredibly diverse,” says Ben Sykes, director of the UK National Stem Cell Network. “It is part of what makes Britain one of the world leaders in stem cell research.”
It has been a long road to get this far. The study of animal stem cells began in this country in the early 1960s, with work at Cambridge University, but the problem with humans was that adult stem cells, which are found in most tissues in the body, have already started specialising into certain cell types. The field did not start to take off until American scientists isolated embryonic stem cells, which can be harvested from embryos that are just a few days old and coaxed into becoming almost any type of cell.
Realising the potential, Britain became the first country in the world to introduce legislation to regulate and support this controversial new field, in 2002. While other powerhouses of research, such as the United States, found themselves hindered by arguments about the ethics of harvesting stem cells from human embryos, Britain ploughed ahead. Not only did funding bodies put £40 million into kick-starting laboratory studies, but researchers who obtained licences to use human embryos to obtain stem cells were required to put the resulting cells into a bank that could be accessed by other scientists – a unique, and crucial, innovation that gave poorly funded teams easy access to cells.
There are now more than 100 teams working on stem cell research in Britain. “The number of groups has expanded pretty rapidly from just a few to large numbers of really high-class academics,” explains Dr Stephen Minger, director of the stem cell biology laboratory at King’s College London. “We haven’t had the kind of hiccups that our colleagues in the US have had, with individual states banning research and a federal ban on funding under the Bush administration.”
Dr Minger, who came to Britain from Kentucky around 13 years ago, is evidence of the benefits Britain has reaped from America’s unpredictable and sometimes hostile attitude towards stem cells. Prof Coffey’s association with Pfizer is only the latest example of American organisations and individuals funding research in Britain to escape this uncertainty, although a recent decision by President Obama to lift the ban on federally funded human embryonic stem cell research may change all that.
“I think the risk in the UK is that all of our early gains in getting ahead of the game over the past 10 years will fall by the wayside if we don’t keep putting the money in to exploit those findings,” says Professor Anthony Hollander, from University of Bristol. “There is a danger the Americans will jump ahead of us and utilise our findings, as has happened to so many other industries. That would be a tragedy.”
Whether the scientists based here will be allowed to translate their successes into the clinic will depend on a combination of suitable funding, co-operation from the bodies that regulate clinical trials and the support of pharmaceutical companies.
But that should not stop us from celebrating the fact that Britain has the potential to be at the forefront of something great.