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Durham First

Stem cell research and the North East England Stem Cell Institute

Martin Cox

by Mr Martin Cox, manager, North-East England Stem Cell Institute

Stem cell research was one of the key issues in last autumn’s US Senate elections. Commentators argued afterwards that the President’s stand on the issue was a key factor in sweeping Democratic gains. Simultaneously, a number of states had referenda on stem cell research.

In the UK, debates and controversies have raged in the national media on hybrid embryos, comprising human and animal material; the donation of human eggs for embryo research; and the creation of sperm from stem cells in mice.

It seems as though stem cell research is rarely out of the headlines. But scientists at Durham University, with a record of work in stem cell biology stretching back 20 years, could be forgiven for scratching their heads at some of the most recent headlines. The science is not as new as many would have you believe.

Our bodies naturally contain stem cells, to replenish and replace the various cells that make up the human body. For example, stem cells in the bone marrow replace blood cells; and stem cells in the skin allow hair to continue to grow and provide cells for skin renewal and wound healing.

The challenge facing scientists who work on these ‘adult' stem cell types is to find out how they work naturally in the body, how they may be made to work better, and, potentially, how they may be re-programmed to work in new ways.

Durham University's stem cell researchers have, for example, been working on dermal stem cells, which naturally regenerate skin and hair. They have found ways of transplanting these from one person to another and of altering their make-up so that they can create other types of cells, such as blood and neuronal (brain and nerve) cells.

Successful stem cell therapies already exist and have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Bone marrow transplants transfer healthy stem cells into cancer sufferers and help cure children with severe immune problems. Stem cells isolated from umbilical cord blood have similarly started to be used in clinical settings and there is increasing evidence that they can be transformed into various tissue types.

Many of the headlines - and, certainly, the main source of controversy in the US - of the recent past have been about embryonic stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells, by their very nature, have the potential to become any cell throughout the body. Mouse embryonic stem cells were first grown in the laboratory in 1981, by a team at the University of Cambridge. The first isolation of human embryonic stem (ES) cells, by a team in Wisconsin, was in 1998.

The science has progressed extremely rapidly since then. The first ES cell line in the UK was generated at King's College London in 2003, closely followed in the same year by Newcastle - work validated independently at Durham University.

Collaboration between stem cell scientists at Durham and Newcastle is long-standing. Look around laboratories in either university and you will find scientists who trained at Durham working in Newcastle and vice-versa, helping to establish the North-East of England as a world-leading centre in stem cell research.

Now, the two universities have come together - along with colleagues in the NHS and the commercial sector, and with significant financial and other support from our Regional Development Agency, One NorthEast - to form the North-East England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI).

Our strength lies in the fact that we work on a range of stem cell types - embryonic, somatic (‘adult'), cord blood and germ line stem cells. Beyond that, we want to be not only excellent scientists, but also at the interface between science and its application.

The North East has NHS research and clinical translation facilities that are second to none. We have important relationships between basic scientists and clinicians - there is, for example, a heart stem cell project jointly between a Durham academic and a consultant cardiac surgeon at South Tees Hospitals NHS Trust.

We are active on the commercial front and have already developed one spin-out company, called ReInnervate, in Durham. Investment in major new linked clean room facilities will allow the production of stem cells to clinical grade and is already attracting a range of potential industrial partners.

We are also extremely lucky to be able to work alongside two top class institutions on ethical and public engagement issues: the Centre for Life in Newcastle and the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Institute (PEALS), itself a collaboration between Durham and Newcastle universities.

All of the building blocks are in place for Durham and its partners to be in the forefront of the exciting possibilities stem cells offer society.