New hub forms part of 'industrial revolution' in regenerative medicine

Scientists at the Universities of Sheffield, Loughborough and Cambridge are set to lead a new £4.5m hub aimed at translating lab discoveries into regenerative treatment to help sufferers of Parkinson’s disease and deafness.

Human stem cell-derived otic neurons repopulating the cochlea of deaf gerbils.The Hub forms part of a £25m investment from three UK Research Councils in research and equipment to support the development of regenerative medicine therapies for a range of applications, including Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease, wound and musculoskeletal repair, eye disorders and deafness.

As part of the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform (UKRMP), funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Hub for pluripotent stem cell research will work with the other strands of the UKRMP to tackle some of the critical challenges in developing new regenerative treatments from discoveries made in the lab.

Professor Peter Andrews, a stem cell biologist from the Centre for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Sheffield, who will lead the Hub, said: "Human trials for regenerative therapies based on stem cells are now on the horizon for some conditions, including several forms of blindness. But we’re still a long way off from being able to produce cell therapies for lots of different disease at an industrial scale. The pluripotency hub brings together for the first time in the UK, researchers with the range of expertise necessary to develop the processes needed to take these cells from laboratory-based research to the commercial manufacture of safe, effective and reproducible products for use in regenerative medicine."

At the moment, experimental regenerative therapies involve the use of relatively small numbers of cells, usually prepared by laboratory researchers. To be able to treat the thousands of patients who could benefit from regenerative medicine, scientists ultimately need to be able to scale-up these efforts to reliably and repeatedly manufacture thousands of millions of cells under uniform and controlled conditions.

The aim of the Hub is to lay the initial foundations for scaling up the production of cell-based therapies from a ‘cottage industry’ to an industrial scale. It will develop a set of protocols for manufacturing cell therapies that meet the requirements of doctors, regulators and industry and tackle key challenges such as:

  • Making sure cells do not undergo unwanted genetic changes or become contaminated with external agents that may change the way they work.
  • Improving differentiation so that scientists can reliably turn 'blank' (pluripotent) cells into the type of cell they want, when they want.
  • Ensuring the right quality control systems are in place so that manufactured cell therapies are safe and suitable for use in human treatments.

Initially they will focus on two disease areas – Parkinson's disease and deafness – where efforts to develop cell therapies are already well underway. The researchers will work closely with commercial companies from the start to ensure that the procedures they develop are commercially viable.

The Hub will be led by the Universities of Sheffield, Loughborough and Cambridge and builds on existing capabilities within MRC and EPSRC Centres and the UK Stem Cell Bank. It will also collaborate with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and Babraham Institute and will complement the work of the existing UKRMP research Hubs.

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: "Regenerative medicine has the potential to revolutionise the way in which we deliver therapies for a range of diseases and disorders. This new investment will allow our world-class science and research base to explore ways in which new medicines can be manufactured and commercialised. As one of the eight great technologies and a key part of our life sciences strategy, we believe regenerative medicine has the potential to transform the lives of thousands of patients."

Additional information

Images and interviews with Peter Andrews and leaders of the capital bids available on request. Please contact:

Hannah Isom
Medical Research Council press office
T: 0207 395 2345 (out of hours: 07818 428 297)
E: press.office@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk

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