The research, to be carried out at the Centre for Life in Newcastle, could help scientists understand how diseases develop and may lead to new treatments for a range of diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s and diabetes.
The decision puts the UK in the vanguard of global research in this very promising area of medicine and confirms North East England's status as one of the world's emerging centres for biomedical research.
The Newcastle Human Embryonic Stem Cell Group, part of the government sponsored Life Knowledge Park (LKP), is now launching a funding appeal to accelerate research. It is seeking private sector partners to help the UK stay ahead of international competition.
The group was established two years ago, in a joint venture involving the NHS, Newcastle University and the Centre for Life with funding from the Departments of Health and Trade and Industry and from the regional development Agency, One North East. Its remit is to explore the potential offered by stem cells to understand and develop possible new therapies for many serious and debilitating diseases.
In early 2003 it became one of the first two groups in the UK to derive human ES (embryonic stem) cells from spare IVF embryos. Two members of the group, Professor Alison Murdoch of the Newcastle NHS Fertility Centre and Dr Miodrag Stojkovic, a Reader in Stem Cell Biology and Embryology at Newcastle University's Institute of Human Genetics (pictured), applied to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for the licence to undertake 'somatic cell nuclear transfer', as it is known scientifically, in February 2004.
Professor Murdoch said of today's decision: 'We’re absolutely thrilled. The potential this area of research offers is immensely exciting and we are keen to take the work we’ve done so far to the next level. Since we submitted our application we have had overwhelming support from senior scientists and clinicians from all over the world and many letters from patients who may benefit from the research.'
She continued: 'This research should give valuable insight into the development of many diseases. Realistically, we have at least five years of further laboratory-based work to do before we move to clinical trials but this could be reduced if we receive additional funding which would allow us to increase the size of our team.'
Dr Stojkovic added: 'Newcastle is now the national frontrunner in this area of research but pressure is mounting in the United States for its scientists to be allowed to do this work. If we are to stay at the cutting edge, we must get further financial backing or, as has happened before, the UK will lose out.'
Current funders of the research team include the regional development agency One NorthEast, Newcastle University and Newcastle's Centre for Life, which was established in 2000 by the Millennium Commission to foster advances in the life sciences.
Its Chief Executive, Alastair Balls said: 'Through the Centre for Life, we have created an environment that encourages collaboration between scientists such as Professor Murdoch and Dr Stojkovic. We provide laboratory space, equipment and a network of expertise and support.'
He added: 'This is one of the most innovative cutting-edge endeavours to come out of Britain in the last ten years. We cannot under estimate the importance of staying ahead in a highly competitve field which may provide immense long term benefits for people worldwide and boost the British economy. We are extremely proud that this work is being done on our site.'
In principle (ES) cells can be used to make any cell type in the body and so replace cells that have been lost as a result of disease or injury.
The procedure involves reprogramming cells from, say skin tissue of a patient who has lost important cells through disease. The re-programmed cells will re-grow as the cells needed by that patient.
The approved research requires the nucleus from a skin cell to be removed and placed into an unfertilised egg. This egg is then stimulated to divide until a group of cells form. Stem cells are then isolated from this group and have the potential to grow into any cell type in the body. They could be directed to grow into, say, liver cells to cure liver disease, nerve cells to allow patients with spinal injury to walk again or nerve cells to overcome the misery of Alzheimer’s disease.
Professor Trevor Page, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for external relations and research at Newcastle University, said: 'Stem cell research is one of the most exciting and promising areas of biomedicine, offering the potential of therapies for diseases such as Parkinson's, liver disease, heart disease and dementia. Our success in this field of research demonstrates the highly productive nature of the partnership between Newcastle University's Institute of Human Genetics, the NHS and the Centre for Life, not only in the form of cutting-edge research but also in promoting public debate on the ethical issues arising from such work.'
Professor John Burn, Executive Director of LKP added, 'These developments vindicate our decision to make stem cells a focus of our investment. The Newcastle team has shown itself to be a world leader in what could be the major field for the life sciences in the coming decade.'
Dr Simon Woods, bioethicist at Newcastle's Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute said: 'The granting of this licence is a major event, and a reflection of the excellence of the research being carried out at Newcastle University. At PEALS we will continue to stimulate public debate and explore with the researchers the ethical and social questions which arise alongside the technical and scientific issues in this promising area of science.
Richard Maudslay, One NorthEast Deputy Chairman and Chairman of the region's Science & Industry Council, said: 'This announcement is a clear demonstration that the North East can lead in cutting-edge areas of science and that our investments in the region's science base are already reaping rewards. It places the North East on the map as a leading centre for biomedical research, which will not only contribute to advancements in understanding and treating debilitating disease, but will lead to job opportunities in the region and attract and retain talented researchers.'
Notes to Editor:
Newcastle Human Embryonic Stem Cell Group, which is part of the Life Knowledge Park (LKP), is based at the Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne and comprises researchers at the Newcastle NHS Fertility Centre at Life and the University of Newcastle’s Institute of Human Genetics. Key researchers are:
Dr Miodrag Stojkovic, LKP Reader in Embryology and Stem Cell Biology, Institute of Human Genetics.
Dr Malinda Lako, LKP Lecturer in Stem Cell Biology, Institute of Human Genetics
Dr Mary Herbert, Scientific Director, Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life
Prof Alison Murdoch, Professor of Reproductive Medicine, Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life,
Professor Tom Strachan, Director, Institute of Human Genetics.
Partners of the Centre for Life:
Life Science Centre
Life Knowledge Park
Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life
Institute of Human Genetics
Centre for Excellence in Life Sciences
Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences (PEALS)
The Centre for Life is an independent trust operating in partnership with the University of Newcastle and The Newcastle NHS Hospital Trust. For further information visit www.centre-for-life.co.uk
Life Knowledge Park, one six genetic knowledge parks in the UK is supported by the Department of Health and Department of Trade and Industry with matching funds from the One North East Strategy for Success initiative.
Information on related courses:
published on: 12th August 2004