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Leading stem cell research scientists receive Research Council UK grants

Published: 
27 May 2004

Scientists carrying out vital research into stem cells at the University of Southampton are benefiting from £a share of £16.5 million in funding announced today (27 May), which should eventually bring important new treatments for major diseases and disabilities a step closer.

The Research Councils UK (RCUK) have announced 57 strategic research grants that will ensure that the UK is at the forefront of the international research community working on stem cells.

Three projects led by the University of Southampton have between them received almost £650k from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC). The projects all aim to deepen our understanding of how stem cells work and how their enormous potential could be harnessed. The research involves taking stem cells from bone marrow and the brain of living adults.

Stem cells are the body's master cells and have a unique ability to renew themselves and give rise to other specialised cell types. This means they have the potential to repair or replace tissues and organs damaged by disease or disability, offering new hope of treatments and cures for many common diseases including diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

Dr Willliam Gray, a senior lecturer at the University and a consultant neurosurgeon at Southampton General Hospital, has been awarded almost £250,000 to research neuropeptide regulation of stem cell proliferation in the adult brain.

His work will focus on identifying and understanding the mechanisms that switch stem cells on and off in the adult human brain. Stem cells located in part of the adult brain called the hippocampus, continue to make new nerve cells throughout life. This production of new nerve cells is important for controlling mood and memory and for certain types of learning. Dr Gray's group has previously shown that these stem cells are controlled by a neurotransmitter released from nerve cells that are often damaged or lost in diseases affecting the brain. Greater knowledge of the mechanisms controlling these stem cells may throw up new targets for drug therapies for depression and cognitive dysfunction related to memory in degenerative diseases such as Alzheimers.

In partnership with other UK universities, Dr Richard Oreffo, who leads the University's bone and cartilage tissue engineering research programme, will take forward two projects with funding from RCUK.

In the first, work will centre on isolating adult mesenchymal stem cells found in bone marrow and expanding these cells for tissue regeneration. These mesenchymal cells have the potential to form a variety of stromal lineages including bone, cartilage, fat and muscle. Dr Oreffo and Professor David O'Connor at Southampton will collaborate with Dr Julian Chaudhuri and Dr Semali Perera in Chemical Engineering at the University of Bath over the next three years. The ability to generate simple and abundant sources of stem cells will offer significant healthcare opportunities, especially for those whose quality of life has been reduced due to musculoskeletal tissue loss as a result of injury or disease.

In a second study, Dr Oreffo is working in collaboration with Professor Alicia El-Haj and Professor John Dobson of the University of Keele to research the development of nanoparticle strategies manipulation and activation of stem cells in vitro and in vivo.

While there is no doubt that the use of stem cells in the form of cell-based therapies offers tremendous potential for disease treatment and reparative medicine, central to this process will be the ability to target and activate these stem cells at required sites of injury and repair. The Keele group has developed enabling technologies to investigate the processes by which magnetic nanoparticle technology can be applied to cell delivery systems. In a cross-disciplinary collaboration, the group will examine mesenchymal stem cell activation, conditioning and mobilisation.

Notes for editors

  1. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University has over 19,200 students and 4800 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £250 million.
  2. Research Councils UK (RCUK) is a strategic partnership set up to champion the science, engineering and technology supported by the seven UK Research Councils.

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