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Monday 24th October 2016

Stem Cell Research

28th January 2007

04092006_cellsstem1.jpg1 What are stem cells?

Stem cells are the building blocks of human development. They are found throughout the human body and enable it to produce new cells for growth and repair. Although it is well known that stem cells can be donated to another person to stimulate their body to repair itself (bone marrow transplants) it is difficult to use them to treat patients. This is because stem cells:

• Have very limited uses – heart stem cells can only be used to repair / grow heart cells.

• Are difficult to find and extract from the human body.

• Will be rejected unless they are donated to someone with compatible DNA.

2 Why is the research controversial?

These difficulties have led scientists to look at other types of stem cells to see if some of these problems can be eliminated. Specifically research has focused on embryonic stem cells (ESCs) taken from human embryos which are no longer needed for fertility treatment. This has shown that ESCs are ‘pluripotent’ - capable of producing any cells required. This makes them much more useful in developing treatments for specific illnesses.

However the techniques used in the research have aroused controversy because ESCs:

• Are extracted from 5 day old embryos - which some people regard as human life and not merely a blastocyst ie a collection of cells.

• May be injected into other mammals, such as mice, pigs and cows, to grow. This has led to fears that human recipients could develop new diseases associated with the host mammal.

• Could, in the future, be replicated through cloning technologies to prevent rejection. This could bring the cloning of a human being one step closer, if the strict protocols regarding this type of research are not adhered to.

3 What is the potential for finding new treatments for diseases?

Scientists hope that these cells can be used to develop new cell-based therapies to tackle some of the diseases which are currently incurable. Research at present is focusing on finding treatments for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, strokes, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

4 What sort of research is being carried out now?

The following summaries provide an indication of the range of research which is currently being undertaken:

• Repairing damage caused by heart attacks.  St Barts Hospital is running a trial to see whether bone marrow stem cells can repair damage caused by heart attacks. Patients are being given injections of their own stem cells within five hours of suffering their heart attack and the effects closely monitored.

• Creating hybrid-human embryos for research. Researchers from Newcastle University and Kings College, London are trying to create embryos by fusing human DNA with cow eggs. This involves inserting human DNA into a cow’s egg which has had its genetic material removed to create an embryo that is 99.9 per cent human. If successful, it will increase the availability of embryos for research; these embryos would be destroyed after 6 days once the stem cells have been harvested.

• Transplanting human stem cells into mice. A team from Wake Forest University School of Medicine North Carolina, has transplanted human stem cells into mice to look at how they performed in live creatures. Preliminary results were encouraging - the stem cells spread and started to produce key body chemicals in both brain and liver.

• Using piglet cells to treat diabetes. Scientists from Canada and the US have shown that insulin-producing islet cells from the pancreases of newborn pigs can reverse Type 1 diabetes in primates. It is hoped that transplants of piglet cells could be used to treat diabetes patients within 3 years after successful experiments in monkeys.

• Searching for alternative sources of stem cells. Several research projects are underway to look at alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells. This would eliminate the need to extract cells from human embryos. Work is focusing on collecting and testing stem cells from amniotic fluid, placentas and umbilical cords.

5 Which countries are leading the research?

Given the potential benefits of stem cell treatments, biotechnology research is becoming highly competitive. The countries at the forefront of this work include the UK, USA (in spite of the restrictions on government funded scientists using new ESCs), China, Singapore and South Korea. In addition, many private companies, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, are investing heavily in research and patents.

6 What is happening in the UK?

In 2005, the government commissioned a report from the UK Stem Cell Initiative Panel to develop a 10 year R&D strategy with the aim of making the UK ‘the most scientifically and commercially productive location’ for this work. The resulting Pattison Report concluded that ‘the UK is one of the world leaders in stem cell research and development – but it needs more government funding and better coordination if it is to maintain and develop its global position.’ It contains:

• A comprehensive overview of the status of stem cell research in the UK and overseas;

• A clear vision and strategy (with indicative costs) for maintaining the UK’s position as a world leader in basic research.

• Recommendations designed to increase funding and set up public / private partnerships to coordinate and develop stem cell research and technology.

These recommendations have been accepted by the government and the total public sector funding for stem cell research over the two year period 2006-07 and 2007-08 will be up to £100 million. This represents an additional investment of around £50 million. 


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