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Loughborough University to play key role in the ‘industrial revolution’ for regenerative medicine

Three UK Research Councils are to invest £25m 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.

Loughborough will be one of three universities that will set up a new £4.5m ‘Hub’ for pluripotent stem cell research 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 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.

A further £20m of capital funding from the MRC will provide state-of-the-art facilities and equipment to support the work of the UKRMP and the wider regenerative medicine research community.

Pluripotent stem cell hub
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.

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."

Regenerative medicine capital funding
The £20m of capital funding from the MRC will support 12 projects at UK research institutions, many of which are linked to the existing UKRMP hubs. Example awards include:

  • A new £10m laboratory facility, co-funded by the University of Edinburgh, located at the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine. Here scientists will develop an artificial system to simulate the environment that surrounds stem cells in developing organs in the body, called the ‘niche’. The artificial niches will allow researchers to grow stem cells in a more controlled way and turn them into functioning cells that could be used to repair damaged tissue. The new UKRMP Centre for the Computational and Chemical Biology of the Niche will function as a ‘research hotel’, available to all UK regenerative medicine researchers at minimal cost to support the rapid development of innovative new regenerative therapies for patients.
  • Funding for a state-of-the-art ‘cell sorter’ at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology. In recent years the UCL team has developed a pipeline of candidate cell therapies to treat a range of eye disorders including glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration. This equipment will allow them to identify rapidly the cells they need from a given cell population, providing an important resource to help them move into human trials.
  • Microscopic imaging equipment that will allow an interdisciplinary team of scientists at the University of Southampton to study and observe the 3D architecture of healthy human tissues at a nanometre scale. This will allow them to create accurate artificial scaffolds for growing replacement parts from stem cells for tissues such as cartilage and bone.
  • A 3D printer and other equipment to allow scientists from Imperial College London, Nottingham University and other members of the UKRMP Acellular Hub to develop prototype biomaterials (such as scaffolds) for use in regeneration of human tissues. Potential applications of these 3D ‘smart materials’ include Parkinson's disease, wound regeneration, cartilage repair, treatments of oesophageal cancer and anterior cruciate (knee) ligament operations.

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.”

Dr Rob Buckle, Director of the UKRMP and Head of Regenerative Medicine at the MRC, said:

“Today’s investment through the UKRMP will help us to realise the potential of regenerative medicine to deliver new treatments for patients, while the capital support will provide additional cutting-edge technical capability in this area, helping to develop interdisciplinary programmes that will maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in the field.”

Also launched today is the latest RCUK timeline, which highlight how investments made in research over the long-term combine to create a significant impact in particular areas. A lab-grown ‘beef’ burger produced from muscle stem cells, artificial liver cells using umbilical cord blood stem cells, and light-sensitive photoreceptors used to restore vision are just some of the ground-breaking discoveries in regenerative medicine of the last 50 years showcased in the timeline.

−ENDS−

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 13/167

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

  1. Regenerative medicine uses a range of biological tools, including stem cells, to repair or replace damaged tissue. This field has the potential to transform medical care by providing treatments for incurable conditions such as heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, blindness and liver failure. Though there have been many advances in laboratory studies of stem cells and other regenerative approaches, to date relatively few therapies progressed to human trials. This is largely because cell-based therapies are far more complex than traditional small molecule drugs, and require further research and new manufacturing approaches to make sure they are safe, effective and can be produced in the volumes required to treat large numbers of patients.
  2. The UKRMP is a £25M initiative set up by BBSRC, EPSRC and the MRC to address the barriers to progressing regenerative medicine advances from the lab to the clinic. Three research hubs have already been established through the first stage of the Platform, which will complement the work of the pluripotent stem cell hub. http://www.ukrmp.org.uk/
  3. Over the past century, the Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Twenty-nine MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. The MRC Centenary Timeline chronicles 100 years of life-changing discoveries and shows how our research has had a lasting influence on healthcare and wellbeing in the UK and globally, right up to the present day. www.centenary.mrc.ac.uk
  4. Research Councils UK (RCUK) is the strategic partnership of the UK's seven Research Councils who annually invest around £3 billion in research. We support excellent research, as judged by peer review, that has an impact on the growth, prosperity and wellbeing of the UK. To maintain the UK’s global research position we offer a diverse range of funding opportunities, foster international collaborations and provide access to the best facilities and infrastructure around the world. We also support the training and career development of researchers and work with them to inspire young people and engage the wider public with research. To maximise the impact of research on economic growth and societal wellbeing we work in partnership with other research funders including the Technology Strategy Board, the UK Higher Education funding bodies, business, government, and charitable organisations. www.rcuk.ac.uk.
  5. Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

    It was awarded the coveted Sunday Times University of the Year 2008-09 title, and is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in national newspaper league tables. It has been voted England's Best Student Experience for six years running in the Times Higher Education league, and in recognition of its contribution to the sector, the University has been awarded six Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

    It is a member of the 1994 Group of 11 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.

Contacts

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

Judy Wing
Senior PR Officer
Loughborough University
T: 01509 228697
E: J.L.Wing@lboro.ac.uk

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