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25 July, 2006 - 11:34 By Staff Reporter

Cambridge signals commitment with £10m stem cell research hub

Cambridge is pressing ahead with its bid to be the world centre for stem cell research with the announcement of a new £10m fundamental research centre at the city's University, funded by the Wellcome Trust.Cambridge is pressing ahead with its bid to be the world centre for stem cell research with the announcement of a new £10m fundamental research centre at the city's University, funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The news will be seen as a clear statement of intent from the UK stem cell research effort, flying in the face of President Bush's recent veto of a lift on the ban on Federal funding for US research and general discord within the EU about its funding of the technology.

The new facility will operate within the University's already established Institute for Stem Cell Biology, which concentrates on clinical work. Construction of the Institute, which has its own dedicated £19.5m funding package, is only just being completed and a recruitment drive for scientists and support staff is on-going.

The Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research will be led by world-renowned stem cell researchers Professor Austin Smith and Professor Fiona Watt, and is due to open in December.

The MRC and the Wolfson Foundation are also contributing £1.5 million each towards the Centre.

Professor Austin Smith is former director of the Centre for Stem Cell Research at Edinburgh University where his team made a series of ground-breaking discoveries in stem cell research and will be director of the new Centre.

“Stem cell biology is a young and complex area of basic research with emerging potential for biomedical applications,” said Prof Smith. “Historically the United Kingdom has been a world leader in stem cell research. There is now both a crucial opportunity to extend this due to the current restrictions on public funding of human embryonic stem cell research in the United States.”

The East of England has already become the destination of choice for a number of 'stem cell exiles,' disillusioned at the restrictive legislative culture in the US, and the continued expansion of the region's infrastructure could attract still more.

“With a shortage of proven talent at the top level in the field, the quality of UK research facilities will prove critical in attracting and retaining elite investigators in the face of global competition,” said Dr Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust. “We are pleased to be able to support the University of Cambridge’s strategic commitment to this area of research and provide the core support to underpin excellence in stem cell research. This will be coupled with provision of outstanding training for the next generation of stem cell researchers in order to sustain and build up UK and European capacity in this crucial area.”

Prof Roger Pedersen, who heads up the stem cell Institute in Cambridge is a good example of this brain drain, coming to the city from the UCSF in California.

The region's cluster is steered by the East of England Stem Cell Network. The area is already home to the world's first embryonic stem cell bank in Hertfordshire, while major commercial players like Stem Cell Sciences recently established its worldwide headquarters in Cambridge.

Taking the post of deputy director at the Centre will be Professor Fiona Watt, who has been head of the Keratinocyte Laboratory at the Cancer Research UK London Research Centre since 1987. Prof Watt is also deputy director of the new Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute. Stem cell biology is an important part of fundamental cancer research, and Professor Watt’s joint appointment between the two Institutes will strengthen the scientific links between them.

In addition to providing £7 million over 5 years for core facilities and a dedicated four year PhD programme in stem cell biology, the Wellcome Trust has awarded a £3 million grant to Professor Watt to explore how adult stem cells can be used to develop better skin grafts. Professor Watt’s team will investigate how an adult’s epidermis (the outer covering of the skin) can be made to produce new hair follicles and glands to lubricate the skin. Her research may also be applicable to stimulating regeneration and production of other specialist cell types, including muscle and brain cells. This would enable the development of therapies using adult stem cell alternatives for numerous diseases and conditions.

Professor Ian Leslie, pro-vice-chancellor for research at the University of Cambridge, commented: "The implications of stem cell research for the treatment of diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's, as well other debilitating conditions, are enormous.

“Cambridge has played a significant historic role in the advancement of stem cell research, and the new Centre will provide countless additional opportunities to build upon this tradition of scientific excellence."

The new Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge will be an international centre of excellence in fundamental stem cell research. Stem cells are rare cells that have the capacity to multiply themselves and to produce other, more specialised, cell types. Study of stem cells can improve the understanding of how the human body develops and maintains itself, and of how certain diseases arise.

The Centre will focus on the definition of the genetic and biochemical mechanisms that control how stem cells develop into particular types of cell. This, it is hoped, will provide foundations for engineering of stem cells to model particular diseases, drug discovery and regenerative medicine.

Blood stem cells and skin stem cells are already used to treat certain leukaemias and burns respectively. Transplants of other types of stem cells may allow the replacement of diseased or damaged tissues in degenerative conditions such as diabetes or Parkinson’s disease. Moreover, scientists believe that as they learn more about the properties of stem cells it may become feasible in some tissues to activate resident stem cells for repair and rejuvenation.

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