Cellartis channels Scottish expertise in stem cells

By Mike Nagle

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Stem cells Stem cell

Cellartis has begun a new research programme in Scotland as part of
a £9.5m (€14.5m) programme by ITI Life Sciences to develop the
world's first automated process to produce high-quality human stem
cells.

The arrival of the Swedish biotech company in Scotland could put the country at the forefront of global stem cell research as well as facilitating the use of stem cells as therapeutics. Initiated by ITI Life Sciences, Dundee, Scotland, the collaboration will also include scienitsts from the University of Glasgow and aims to solve some of the major problems associated with producing high volumes of quality stem cell lines.

Stem cells are arguably best known as a possible source of regenerative cell therapies able to treat disease by themselves. However, they can also be used in drug discovery and preclinical research, a more realistic aim in the near term. For example, a drug designed to combat heart disease could have activity assessed on human heart cells or liver cells could be produced to test drug toxicity.

The market for cell-based tools within the pharmaceutical industry was worth $1.4bn (€1.1bn) in 2001 and has grown rapidly ever since, according to ITI Life Sciences.

"There are essentially two key technical hurdles to be overcome before stem cells can be used extensively for drug discovery and therapies: you need a robust process to produce large numbers of stable cells to work with and you need to control the way in which a stem cell changes into, say, a liver cell or a heart cell,"​ said Professor Steve Beaumont, vice principal for research and enterprise at Glasgow University.

"Neither of these problems has been cracked yet, and it is [this] that the ITI programme hopes to overcome."

The initial work will be done at the University of Glasgow, where Professors Miles Houslay and Graeme Milligan will use their expertise in cell signalling, together with Cellartis' knowledge in growing, handling and maintaining hES cells, to identify early biological markers of pluripotentiality. The team also hope to reduce the length of time it takes to promote and inhibit differentiation from ten days to two.

Cellartis is the world's largest source of human embryonic stem (hES) cells. These existing stem cells will be used in the research, meaning no new hES cells will need to be collected.

Normally, hES cells are isolated from mammalian embryos when they are just five or six days old. They can develop into any of the cell types found in a developed organism (they are pluripotent) and so offer a significant advantage over adult stem cells, which are predetermined to yield specific cell types. However, they do have their disadvantages, as hES cells divide over time, the cells can mutate and form tumours.

Prof Ian Wilmut, University of Edinburgh, played a supervisory role in the team that first cloned a mammal - Dolly the Sheep - over a decade ago and will be advising ITI Life Sciences on the programme.

He said: "In the haste to use stem cells for cellular therapy, people often overlook their immense potential to provide tools to study human disease."

Cellartis are backed by a £1.2m government grant through Scottish Development International and the programme is expected to create an initial 75 new jobs.

Related topics Preclinical Research

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