Stem cell conference pushes the science nearer its goals

IT WAS the week when stem cells came to town. The world's leading researchers in this complex area of science gathered in Edinburgh to spread the word about their work and its potential.c

But what did the three-day conference achieve? According to those who took part, the event will help push the science towards the ultimate goal: new treatments for those suffering serious disease.

Among the advances discussed were new approaches to repair the damage caused by strokes and heart attacks, tackling cancer and finding new ways to use the cells to regenerate tissue such as cartilage.

Professor Michael Whitaker, a member of the UK National Stem Cell Network steering committee, which organised the conference, said a lot of exciting developments had been discussed during the conference, adding: "The more we can get people talking, the faster things will move towards developing new treatments."

Prof Whitaker said one of the most interesting topics at the conference had been the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS cells), which are developed from adult stem cells but share similar qualities to embryonic stem cells.

And he said the next major breakthrough in the UK was likely to involve using stem cells to repair cornea damage in eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration.

Clinical trials involving patients are expected within the next year. "I am very bullish about this and I think that is where we will see some developments in the near future," Prof Whitaker said.

Lord Patel of Dunkeld, chairman of the UK National Stem Cell Network and chancellor of Dundee University, said the UK was currently a leader in stem cell science:

"There are now at least five stem cell research departments in the (UK's] universities that are identified as the leaders in this field, including Edinburgh."

But he said: "If we are going to maintain a lead in this type of science, we are going to need a lot more scientists to be trained who will do stem-cell research.

"Therefore money needs to be available for all of stem-cell science and not just research – invest in training, capacity building and science research."

Professor Cay Kielty, from the University of Manchester, was presenting research at the conference. She said the meeting had been a major success in bringing together leading researchers to share their ideas.

"There are now collaborations between scientists which were not there 24 hours ago," Prof Kielty said. "It has been a great success I think. It means we can share our knowledge and push forward to make important developments in stem-cell science."

Prof Kielty's own team have been studying the system which directs adult stem cells to repair damaged tissue.

"This is very basic science, but eventually it could help researchers develop treatments for a variety of illnesses," she said.

"If we can direct the stem cells to the sites in need of repair, it could prove very useful and understanding the messaging system in the body that directs them to do that is very important. Our particular area of interest is vascular repair, for example fixing the areas damaged by a heart attack."

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