New €55.6m European project will use stem cells to increase understanding of diseases

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 07 December 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8325
  1. Nigel Hawkes
  1. 1London

A five year collaborative project costing €55.6m (£45m; $72.7m) has been launched to use stem cells to increase understanding of diseases and devise better ways to treat them. The project, called Stembanc, brings together academic centres across Europe with drug companies to create “the patient in a dish”—cultures of cells grown from stem cells taken from patients and used as assays for new drug treatments.

The approach will take skin and blood cells from 500 patients and use techniques that won the Japanese clinician Shinya Yamanaka a share of this year’s Nobel prize for Medicine.1 The cells will then be restored to their precursor stem cells, the so called induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells that have the capacity to develop into any of the specialised cells of the body. Each patient will yield three lines of these IPS cells that can then be grown indefinitely in culture, stored, and shipped around the world to different laboratories.

The stem cells will be triggered into action so that they differentiate into particular cells of the body, such as nerve cells. Different “recipes” exist to trigger the creation of different types of cell. These differentiated cells can then be compared with those developed from healthy people to try to understand the biological basis of the patients’ diseases or used as assays for new drugs to treat them.

The project is applicable to diseases in which there is a genetic component, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism, and neuropathic pain. Cells generated from patients will include these genetic abnormalities, whatever they may be, while those from healthy people with no family history of the disease will not.

Zameel Cader, a neurologist from the University of Oxford, who will manage the project, said that the project would create “a very deep understanding of the disease and a perfect assay platform.”

Studying a condition such as dementia, he told a press conference at the Science Media Centre in London on 5 December, was difficult, because it was impossible to access the nerve cells that are undergoing the changes characteristic of the disease. And even when human cells could be isolated, they often had to be modified to survive in culture and no longer behaved naturally. Time and again, he said, compounds that looked promising in such cultures or in animal testing failed when tested in expensive human trials, often because they proved toxic.

“The process isn’t working,” he said. “That’s why there have been a series of high profile failures and industry is disinvesting from this area of research. Perhaps stem cells are a way of transforming that. They can also be turned into heart or liver cells to test for toxicity at a much earlier stage in development.”

The project’s coordinator, Martin Graf of Hoffman-La Roche, said that it was “a huge opportunity” that avoided the ethical issue of using embryonic stem cells.

Sally Cowley of the Oxford Stem Cell Institute said that the techniques were already established and estimated that the cost of creating each stem cell line was about £3000.

The project is funded by the Innovative Medicines Initiative, the world’s largest public-private partnership in health, in which each €1bn of European Union funding is matched by at least another €1bn from companies belonging to the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations. The initiative has so far supported 37 projects, of which Stembanc is one of the biggest. More than 20 academic centres, including eight in the United Kingdom, and 10 drug companies will collaborate in the venture.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8325