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Stem cell research - Bridging the "Valley of Death"

Fergus Walsh | 15:14 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

In case you missed it today is the first International Legislative Stem Cell Day. What's that I hear you ask? Apparently there are simultaneous events in the UK and USA to call for policies to speed up the commercialisation of regenerative medicine.

I was at one of them, at the Science Media Centre in London. I've talked before about the promise of stem cells. The potential is so great that this area of medicine gets a huge amount of media attention. A group of stem cell experts met with the science minister David Willetts to argue the case for more government funding to help turn stem cell ideas into reality - all very difficult a month before the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).

Professor Chris Mason, chair of the BIA Regenerative Medicine Industry Group said although investment returns are likely to be 15 years off, it was vital that government supported the move from the discovery phase to commercialisation. He said: "We must break the UK mantra of invented here and commercialised elsewhere".

David Willetts did announce more funding for regenerative medicine, but the exact amount will depend on the CSR. The cash, which maybe in the region of £10 million, will be used from next year to fund competition by companies trying to bring new treatments to the marketplace. Mr Willetts said: "I accept that stem cells and regenerative medicine have enormous potential for patients and for economic growth."

Whilst any funding will be useful, it's worth pointing out that the cost of bringing a new drug to market is up to £600m.

Professor Pete Coffey from the London Project to Cure Blindness at University College London said everyone was expecting a significant overall cut in government support following the CSR. Professor Coffey is hoping to use stem cells to treat age-related macular degeneration. He said he'd had concrete offers to move his research abroad, but remained loyal to the UK where he was born and educated. But he said if there were funding cuts of more that 10% he would have to lay-off members of his team. He said: "Other parts of the world, like California and Singapore are looking very attractive and the pressures here are becoming enormous." California has had $3 billion of state support for stem cell research over the past decade with around the same level again given in philanthropic grants. Professor Coffey said Singapore had recently unveiled a $10 billion (US dollar) programme for regenerative medicine, including major funding for diseases of the eye.

Sir Richard Sykes, Chair of the UK Stem Cell Foundation said Britain had always been good at fundamental research but not good at translating it. Sir Richard, a former head of GlaxoSmithKline, said there was a danger that British scientists would be attracted to research centres in Shanghai, California and elsewhere. He said there was a serious funding gap between discovery and translation - what people call "the Valley of Death" which a combination of government support and philanthropic donations could help to bridge.

Successful stem cell therapies have been around a long time - such as bone marrow transplants. More recently, stem cells have been used with tissue scaffolds to repair damaged organs like the windpipe. There have been promising trials using stem cells in the heart and liver. But given the danger of hyping stem cells at this early stage, I wondered when I would be able to walk into my GP surgery to ask for my kidney, liver or joints to be repaired. Sadly, it's not likely to be anytime soon.

David Bott from the Technology Strategy Board which funds UK innovation, said all emerging technologies disappoint in the short-term and over-deliver in the long term.

"If you live for the next 30 years you will probably benefit from this", he said cheerily. I will do my best, but it is a reminder that, for the foreseeable future, most regenerative medicine remains confined to the bench rather than the bedside.

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  • 1. At 3:54pm on 22 Sep 2010, jizzlingtons wrote:

    Very interesting, shows some great hope for the future of medicine. It's just a shame that due to our pathetic government investment we are yet again on the brink of losing our best people and ideas to other countries who know what their true value is.

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  • 2. At 4:28pm on 22 Sep 2010, BluesBerry wrote:

    I did miss "International Legislative Stem Cell Day". Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
    Yes, I have real belief that regenerative medicine will replace transplants and of course all those horried transplant medications in the near future.
    I agree with the Science Minister David Willetts that stem cell research must be funded as much as possible - a priority.
    Why?
    Because there will ultimately be great savings in pain & suffering as well as on the healthcare budget.e.g. It's easier to grow a heart that you know will not reject than maintain a registry to find a heart that is compatible, but may still reject.
    Professor Chris Mason, chair of the BIA Regenerative Medicine Industry Group said although investment returns are likely to be 15 years off... What is fifteen years? It's nothing. Perhaps, all those brave men and women who have lost limbs in various wars will be able to grow them back; perhaps the paralyzed will generate the nerve networks that will enable them to walk, perhaps the blind will see...
    David Willetts did announce more funding: The cash, which maybe in the region of £10 million, will be used from next year to fund competition by companies trying to bring new treatments to the marketplace. Competition?? Aree we wasting this money on competition? There is a time for competition and a time not for competition. Why are these companies not coming together vs. duplicating each other, working together vs racing with each another? I call this waste of very limited funds!
    Surely, there is a way to present the funding that will call all research faciulities together to optimize the usage of the money?

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  • 3. At 6:42pm on 22 Sep 2010, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    What happened to my comment?

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  • 4. At 7:08pm on 22 Sep 2010, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    When stem cell therapy goes mainstream will there be stem cell shortages? Where will medicine get stem cells from to bolster any shortages?

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  • 5. At 07:48am on 23 Sep 2010, Megan wrote:

    If it such a commercially-attractive proposition, turn to commercial sources of funding.

    When our (not the government's, they don't have any of their own) money is put into medical advances, when they come into production we are still charged the full price. No return on the investment.

    At the moment it appears that the government is going to be unable to meet its obligations to the citizens of this country, let alone put money into what ought to be a commercial venture.

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  • 6. At 10:00am on 23 Sep 2010, John_from_Hendon wrote:

    The cannot be a sentient organism on this planet that does not wish to be like the immortal jellyfish! Stem cell research is just another path starting with the obsession with zombies and vampires through Dr. Frankenstein's creation. Sadly for all of us we are a very very long way away from a solution to death. (Leaving aside the advisability of actually implementing such a solution!)

    The understanding of how the claimed miraculous nature of treatments actually work using stem cells needs to come first and from what I can see these just do not exist as we still have only a slight understanding of how cells grow and selectively express their genetic material, but nevertheless the research seems a good idea, but as a path to understanding more about the cell and the way that living organisms work, not as an imminent medical treatment. My verdict is that stem cell research is a promising research path, just as is nuclear fusion and the understanding of the nature of existence through m-brane theory.

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  • 7. At 11:05pm on 28 Sep 2010, Irv Arons wrote:

    I have recently written A Primer on the Use of Stem Cells in Ophthalmology. It contains basic information about what stem cells are, the different types, what they are being developed for in ophthalmology (including several at University College London) the companies involved and who (what university and commercial labs) they are collaborating with.

    The link is: http://tinyurl.com/stemcells

    Irv Arons
    (Retired, former consultant to the ophthalmic industry)

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  • 8. At 1:07pm on 30 Sep 2010, chezza100 wrote:

    Surely anything that can prolong life is a good thing.

    For selfish reasons I am in favour as I've had diabetes for 20 years and my body is starting to show signs of being on injected insulin for so long.

    My life expectacy is reduced because of my diatbetes so anything that can help with a cure through stem cells will be welcomed by me.

    My reasons? I want to have children and live to see them grow into adults.

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  • 9. At 1:20pm on 30 Sep 2010, Peter_Sym wrote:

    4. At 7:08pm on 22 Sep 2010, sensiblegrannie wrote:
    When stem cell therapy goes mainstream will there be stem cell shortages? Where will medicine get stem cells from to bolster any shortages?


    Probably from the patient themselves. The least side effects will be found if you use the patients own cells. Its Sci-Fi at present but in theory you can take a few drops of blood from the patient, isolate the stem cells, treat them with whatever stimulants are needed to make them differentiate and grow the patient a new liver in an incubator.

    Don't worry too much about Burke and Hare stealing your stem cells!

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  • 10. At 12:46pm on 01 Oct 2010, Lewis Fitzroy wrote:

    "Do most stem cell still come from aborted babys? Which country supplys the bulk of them? What if any? are the benifits of stem cells now or in the future.

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  • 11. At 5:08pm on 04 Oct 2010, mscracker wrote:

    Adult stem cell research & embryonic stem cell research are two entirely different critters, ethically speaking. The latter creates a disposable human life to be cannabilized for parts in the lab.
    One life becomes the consumer, the other the victim.

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