BBC Radio 4, Thursday 3 June 2010
BBC Radio 4's Britain's Labs: Stem cells provides a valuable insight into the current focus and prioritisation of stem cell research in the UK, which has received international support since US president, Barack Obama, put an end to the ban on the use of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in the US. Stem cells in all living creatures are characterised by their ability to renew themselves and differentiate into other cells types and are crucial in the treatment of disease. The programme follows the visit carried out by Professor Iain Stewart to the Centre for Regenerative Medicine - a brand new laboratory on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland, dedicated to stem cell research using techniques at the forefront of cutting edge technology.
The new lab is linked to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary - the principal hospital in the area - to ensure that clinicians and scientists can work together to understand more about the nature of conditions such as Parkinson's Disease and Multiple Sclerosis. The centre has been made possible by a £59 million grant from the Scottish Executive and Scottish Enterprise, and was driven by the Patterson Report on the UK stem cell initiative in 2005, which set out an ambitious strategy for this area of research over the next ten years.
It is explained that the centre houses 16 different sites and is referred to as a 'Medical Biopark'. The aim is to attract resources from other research departments and companies for a combined effort in the advancement of regenerative medicine and cell therapy. It is hoped that work carried out on cell division and the creation of specialised cells will help to fight diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, Huntington's, cancer and stroke by providing new tissue that has been lost through age, disease or innate bodily defects.
The listener is alerted to the fact that much of the controversy surrounding stem cells derives from the use of embryonic stem cells - that is the cells taken from aborted fetuses and/or embryos created by assisted reproductive techniques. These cells have long term possibilities in that they are pluripotent, meaning that they have the ability to differentiate and form most other cell types within the body - but their use has sparked outrage by religious groups and pro-life campaigners. However, as one female scientist points out, the cells making the most progress within the laboratory actually appear tobe adult stem cells, which can renew themselves, albeit to a specific cell type. For example, an adult skin cell can make more skin cells, bone cells can become more bone, etc. Whilst making stem cell lines from human embryos can be controversial, she argues that the use of adult stem cells does not raise the same ethical issues.
Towards the end of the programme, Iain Stewart meets with Professor Ian Wilmut, Director of the Centre, and perhaps most famously known as the creator of 'Dolly the Sheep'. Wilmut explains that modern day technology has advanced at such a rate from the days of animal cloning that stem cells themselves can now be created in a lab. As they proceeded to the 'culture room' of the state of the art facility - or 'the engine room' as it is colloquially known - it is revealed that in the fight against motor neurone disease, it is now possible to take a skin cell from a sufferer of the disease and create nerve cells that replicate the cells that the patient would have been born with. To be able to 'tailor-make' nerves that have died to a specific person is simply mind-blowing. Whilst it is made clear that this type of research will not provide immediate benefits for all sufferers at the current time, with advancements moving at an incredible pace, the future of regenerative medicine looks set to be an exciting and vibrant one.