Europe challenges USA in stem cell research

A major research project linking the expertise of 20 leading organisations aims to keep Europe at the forefront of human embryonic stem cell research, thanks to a €12 million European grant. The ESTOOLS consortium, led by the Centre for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Sheffield in the UK, is a European Union 6th Framework Programme Integrated Project which will advance fundamental understanding and biomedical application of human embryonic stem cells, generating significant benefits in human healthcare.

Leading scientists from seventeen academic institutions and three biotechnology companies involved in ESTOOLS will come together in the Derbyshire Peak District outside Sheffield at the end of August 2006 to launch the new consortium.

Embryonic stem cells have enormous potential, not only in regenerative medicine for replacing damaged tissue in devastating diseases such as Parkinson's disease and diabetes, but also for applications in drug discovery, toxicology and pharmacogenomics. They are also crucial in understanding the underlying processes that lead to serious clinical conditions ranging from infertility and birth defects to cancer.

Funded for four years from August 2006, the ESTOOLS project will generate knowledge on the fundamental processes governing stem cell differentiation and permit greater standardisation of research with human embryonic stem cells, not only in Europe but throughout the world. It will include the development of robust internationally-agreed standardised protocols and tools for growing and manipulating embryonic stem cell lines, and for monitoring their phenotypic, genetic and epigenetic stability. This knowledge will be disseminated so that the wider scientific community can make the best use of the stem cell lines which already exist.

ESTOOLS will also train young researchers from across Europe to gain expertise in the field of human embryonic stem cells. Summer schools and short training courses will be run, as well as longer exchange programs including an innovative fellowship scheme that will allow up to six young researchers per year to train in the laboratories of some of Europe's top human embryonic stem cell groups. As part of this program ESTOOLS will be co-sponsoring with the European Molecular Biology Organisation, EMBO, a one week course in working with embryonic stem cells, to be held at the Centre for Stem Cell Biology in Sheffield from 30 August 2006.

Professor Peter Andrews, Director of the Centre for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Sheffield, said: "Human embryonic stem cells are set to give us important new insights into cellular development and disease processes in normal human cells. By bringing together the expertise of some of Europe's principal groups working in human embryonic stem cells, ESTOOLS provides unprecedented opportunities for Europe to forge ahead of the USA in this exciting new area of biomedical science."

Notes for Editors: The organisations and institutions involved at the outset of the project are:
University of Sheffield UK
Stem Cell Sciences UK Ltd UK
University of Basel Switzerland
Hebrew University of Jerusalem Israel
University of Turku Finland
University of Bonn Germany
University of Milan Italy
The Medical Research Council UK
Spanish National Cancer Centre Spain
Axordia Ltd UK
Institute of Experimental Medicine Czech Republic
University of Lund Sweden
Karolinska Institutet Sweden
Netherlands Cancer Institute Netherlands
University of Helsinki Finland
SCT Stem Cell Technologies Ltd Israel
University of Edinburgh UK
University of Technology Dresden Germany
University of Cambridge UK
Imperial College London UK

All use of human embryonic stem cells within ESTOOLS will comply with the local legislation that governs each participant, and will also be overseen by an independent panel of experts in the area. In addition, the ESTOOLS programme includes a work package focused on developing a full understanding of the ethical debate concerning the use of these types of cells in Europe.

Since 2003 the University of Sheffield's Centre for Stem Cell Biology has derived six embryonic stem cell lines for research. The stem cell lines have been deposited in the UK Stem Cell Bank for use by scientists across the world to develop regenerative medicine techniques to counter and treat disease. The UK Stem Cell Initiative has ranked the University of Sheffield as the UK University leading the creation of patents in stem cell research.

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