Today George Osborne announced in a speech at the Royal Society that regenerative medicine will be one of eight key areas where the government thinks Britain is a world leader and can and must go further to encourage economic growth. This follows a number of policy developments in the emerging field, including a government stocktake of regenerative medicine in the UK, a new strategy for regenerative medicine by the research councils and an inquiry by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. The Committee has begun taking oral evidence for the enquiry and has also received written evidence from around five AMRC members, and the AMRC itself. What they’ve heard so far demonstrates why the government has identified this as such an important area.
What is regenerative medicine?
Regenerative medicine is the process of creating living, functional tissues to repair or replace tissue or organ function lost due to damage, or congenital defects. Lots of medical conditions are the result of damaged tissues and organs which the body can’t heal itself, so as we get better at it, regenerative medicine offers huge potential to treat people with these conditions.
What is the current state of play for regenerative medicine in the UK?
Last week saw Parkinson’s UK researcher Professor Roger Barker and BHF Professor of Regenerative Cardiology Michael Schneider appear alongside Professor Peng Tee Khaw from the Moorfields Eye Hospital to answer questions the Lords Committee had on the current reality of this area of science – ranging from how it’s been reported in the media, to what types of treatment are, or will soon be, available to patients.
The Committee heard that their was great public interest and expectation for regenerative medicine and, unusually for such a new field, there are some very promising treatments already being trialled for a few conditions. But the witnesses also said that news stories about potential treatments can sometimes promise too much too early. “Stem cell tourism” was also another concern, with patients being tempted by clinics overseas to pay for unproven and possibly unsafe treatments.
The Committee also ventured into the world of Twitter to ask for questions using #RegenMedQs (despite lacking a Committee Twitter account…) with tweets from issues such as patient information to last year’s ECJ case on human embryonic stem cell patents being read out by peers. You can watch the full session on the Committee’s website.
On Tuesday this week, the Committee turned to regenerative medicine funding. BHF Medical Director Prof Peter Weissberg and Wellcome Trust Director Sir Mark Walport joined the DH’s Dame Sally Davies and MRC Chief Executive Prof Sir John Savill.
This is a particular area of interest for the BHF at present, as the key funder of cardiovascular research in the field of regenerative medicine – funding around £38m in the UK. Last year, the BHF launched an appeal to fund a new programme of research into regenerative medicine, Mending Broken Hearts, aiming to commence early clinical trials within five years and full clinical trials in about 10 years – through an investment of £50 million over and above the current research spend.
Current research capacity was also raised by peers. Sir John estimated that between 1,000-2000 researchers in regenerative medicine receive public funding in the UK. The BHF highlighted that it is making efforts to incentivise other researchers to move into cardiovascular regenerative medicine – Dame Sally highlighted the need to encourage more people in clinical research to consider this field. All were quick to show the level of collaboration between funders – on the same day the MRC and Wellcome announced a new £13m national stem cell resource to create a catalogue of high-quality induced pluripotent stem cells.
The Committee inquiry has provided research charities with a great opportunity to highlight both the strengths within the UK in this area, in addition to ongoing challenges in the field. Within cardiovascular disease, further basic scientific research and preclinical testing is needed to make substantial advances in regenerative medicine before full clinical trials can take place. Once that stage is reached though, we need an NHS that is well-prepared to take those discoveries from research into effective therapies for patients. Addressing continuing problems within the NHS related to bureaucracy, incentivisation of clinical research, and the effective adoption of innovative therapies, is necessary to ensure future regenerative medicine therapies reach patients.
Overall, all the witnesses were generally optimistic about the current funding opportunities for translational research. When pressed by Committee chair Lord Krebs on whether current levels were enough, Sir Mark highlighted that this needs to be considered in the context of the overall science budget – and with funding frozen, any more funding would likely be at the expense of other much-needed research. Prof Weissberg highlighted that the current direction of travel from the UK Govenment on regenerative medicine is a good one – and that to aid future clinical trials attention should instead be focused on improving the overall environment, such as ensuring the new EU Clinical Trials Regulation helps to facilitate trials in the UK.
The Committee will continue to hear evidence through to the New Year from a variety of experts and funders. The inquiry will lead to a report being published in Spring 2013, with recommendations to the Government on how the UK can continue to be world-leaders in regenerative medicine.
George Osborne says we can expect to hear more from the government on regenerative medicine next month!
Joe Clift is policy officer at the British Heart Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @josephclift