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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.

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