What is regenerative medicine?
At the heart of regenerative medicine is research using stem cells which are cells that can regenerate almost indefinitely.
Some, known as pluripotent stem cells, can develop into any of the cell types in the body. This extraordinary flexibility means they have the potential to treat many different diseases and conditions that currently have no cure, like type 1 diabetes, blindness, Parkinson’s disease, repair of skin wounds and arthritis. The use of new cells to replace dead or damaged tissue is known as stem cell therapy. Stimulating the body to repair itself is another important part of regenerative medicine.
Stem cells are also used to improve our understanding of how degenerative diseases develop and progress. For example, researchers have recreated nerve cells from patients who have conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, and cardiac cells from patients with heart disease. Scientists can study these cells more closely and use them to develop and test drugs that can slow down the symptoms of these diseases, prevent them from getting worse, and even reverse them – something which is impossible to do in living patients.
The field of regenerative medicine faces many technical and scientific challenges.
These include understanding how to turn stem cells into the type of cell needed and how to manufacture them safely and in large-enough quantities for use in hospitals. It is also crucial to figure out how to target treatments to the part of the body that needs repairing, and to find ways of stopping the body from rejecting transplants.
To tackle these and other obstacles, the MRC, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) together launched the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform (UKRMP).
Now in its second phase, with a total investment of £42 million for research spanning 2013-2023, the UKRMP has brought together leading research teams from different universities and different areas of science such as biology, medicine and engineering, helping to ensure that promising scientific discoveries in regenerative medicine are translated into the clinic where they can benefit patients.
The UKRMP also connects with Innovate UK's Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, which promotes the commercialisation and late-stage development of regenerative medicine products, as well as with research charities and other stakeholders.
Stem cell types and researcher resources
Researchers work with stem cells that have one of two main origins. Embryonic stem cells (ESC), which are derived from embryos, when the cells haven’t yet developed into specific cell types and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are created from ordinary skin, blood or hair cells by reprogramming them to become stem cells.
It is important that researchers can access and use human stem cells that are ethically-sourced and reliable.
The MRC plays a leading role in this area by making sure that UK human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is appropriately regulated.
Our activity includes MRC funding for the UK Stem Cell Bank – the world’s first – which provides ethical and high-quality hESC lines such as groups of cells grown from a single cell, that scientists in the UK and overseas can use for laboratory research and treatment within the clinic. An expert Steering Committee oversees the approvals for use of these stem cells.
These hESC lines must be produced to the highest quality in order to be used in patient studies. To help with this, we funded three centres to produce more than 20 hESC lines that are now available for use in clinical studies.
In parallel, in partnership with the charity Wellcome, we set up the Human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Initiative (HipSci) in 2013. HipSci created a catalogue of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) lines from over 500 healthy volunteers and patients with genetic disease. These cells and data continue to be valuable resources for scientists wanting to carry out laboratory research on the effects of our genes on health and disease, and will help us to understand how iPSCs can be controlled and used for future stem cell treatments.