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November 17, 2011

Not all doom and gloom: Major investment in UK stem cell therapy initiative

While many researchers will feel disheartened by last month’s ruling in the Court of Justice of the European Union that prohibits scientific research patents on human embryonic stem cell products (see Ubaka Ogbogu’s article), it seems some positive news is emerging from Europe as well. Specifically, the United Kingdom has recently promised a huge investment in the development of a major cell therapy centre.

In an effort to emerge from the recession, the UK government has launched a program through its Technology Strategy Board that will create a series of Technology and Innovation Centres. Building off David Cameron’s 2010 announcement, the investment is not trivial (£220 million or ~$350 million) and the idea is to take advantage of the UK’s strengths in various research sectors to build an environment of business development mixed with research advances and opportunities.

The cell therapy centre will build on the UK’s expertise in stem cells and regenerative medicine and is described as “a unique centre where academics, businesses and clinicians (i.e. medical professionals with a special interest in cell therapies) will work together to focus on the commercial development of cutting edge technologies in cell therapy.” According to a recent article in the Guardian the centre has already gained the support of major multinational pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, GSK, and Astra-Zeneca, which should provide a good base of investment for such a lofty project.

The ultimate vision for cell therapy is personalization, where clinicians remove a patient’s own cells, correct/treat them, then return them to the same patient. As the demand for personalized medicine increases, the range and scale of treatments will also increase. What is unclear, however, is whether or not the private sector will be as involved in the development of therapies that may not result in a defined commercializable product.

What is remarkably clear, however, is that the UK is taking a bold step forward to support cell therapies as a cornerstone of their economy – anticipation at this level could well result in their emergence as a world leader in cell therapies and is complemented nicely by recent approval of ES cell derived cells for treating Stargardt's macular dystrophy.

Where does Canada sit on the cell therapy front? There are programs that appear to be moving in the right direction (e.g.: Princess Margaret Hospital’s Cell Therapy Program and the newly formed Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine) but nothing has appeared on my radar that enjoys the same level of public funding. A bigger, bolder commitment will be required by Canada – and other nations – to be as well-positioned as the UK’s cell therapy centre to benefit from the flurry of activity that is to come in this sector.

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