What do we need to do to support stem cell research in the UK?

Posted on July 18, 2011 by


The government have published a plan of action to support stem cell research in the UK Taking Stock of Regenerative Medicine in the United Kingdom. It identifies ten actions the government will take now to support regenerative medicine in the UK, including working with partners including charities to develop creative funding mechanisms to support UK regenerative medicine. This will be coordinated by the Office of Life Sciences. The report is worth a read as a great overview of regenerative medicine in the UK at the moment and where it’s going next.


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.

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills published a questionnaire in January 2011, asking about regenerative medicine in the UK – see my earlier post BIS taking a snapshot of regenerative medicine in the UK. They wanted to take a stocktake of what the UK is doing and explore how we could do it better and how they could support investment in regenerative medicine.

As lots of medical research charities fund or want to fund research into regenerative medicine, we responded to this questionnaire.

What does it say?

Regenerative medicine cuts across several government departments so this report is published jointly by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Health.

The report is a big overview of regenerative medicine in the UK, exploring where this sits internationally, and ends with ten actions the government plans to take right now to support UK regenerative medicine.

The report…

  • Assesses where the science is – section 2 is a good overview of what regenerative medicine is, where it’s at and what further knowledge, ways of working and other support might be needed to drive the science towards developing therapies to help patients. This section also draws a few international comparisons, looking at the UK’s impact in regenerative medicine – how many papers we’re publishing and if they are having a high impact – and how that shapes up internationally. It finds that internationally we’re good, the US is recognised as the world leader – but other countries are investing heavily in regenerative medicine, developing strong collaborations and having high impact. The UK currently invests broadly across all the different areas of regenerative medicine, and rather than try to pick winners, this report concludes that this approach, keeping all possible avenues open, is sensible.
  • Looks at how it’s funded – regenerative medicine has been predominantly funded through public funding including medical research charities up to now but pharmaceutical and private investment is increasing. But because the development of treatments through regenerative medicine is still at an early stage, a lot of private/pharma investment is more exploratory rather than finding possible new treatments to exploit. Section 3 looks at this in detail. There’s a focus on charity investment in regenerative medicine with facts and figures from AMRC – over the four-year period from 2005-09, 29 AMRC members invested a combined total of almost £38 million into regenerative medicine. There is also detail of government funding for regenerative medicine, strategic initiatives, infrastructure, regulatory support and direct funding for research – a big long list including:
    • The TSB/Research Council Regenerative Medicine Programme
    • The Cell Therapy Technology & Innovation Centre announced in the 2011 Budget
    • UK  Stem Cell Strategic Forum
    • Research Council Funding
    • Stem Cells for Safer Medicines
    • Stem Cell Bank
    • UK National Stem Cell Network
    •  Stem Cell Toolkit
      and EU support.
  •  Explores how it’s regulated – the report recognises that this is a relatively new area so regulation is being developed but stresses the need for clear, coordinated guidance. The proposed new Health Research Regulatory Authority – a single regulator of health research working closely with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA – the medicines regulator) should play a role in this.
  • And issues around patenting – The UK is currently filing less regenerative medicine patents than you might expect. The ability to file patents plays a big role in encouraging innovation.
  • And looks at what the evidence suggests we should do to create an environment where research into regenerative medicine is translated to the clinic to treat patients – section 4 identifies barriers and opportunities, including:
    • the NHS Blood and Transport Service’s expertise and infrastructure has huge potential to support the manufacture and supply of cell based regenerative medicine therapies across the UK.
    • supporting sharing of skills and collaboration will help develop the people we need to do research into regenerative medicine
    • National Institute of Health Research’s (the research-focused part of the NHS) support for regenerative medicine, working with charity and industry partners.
    • bringing bioprocessing and manufacturing facilities in the UK up to scratch
    • developing a health system able to adopt new regenerative medicine products – Ian Carruthers is currently looking at just this in his review of Innovation in the NHS.

The actions (page 5) include

working with partners – including charities – to investigate creative funding mechanisms from a broad range of sources to support regenerative medicine. This will be coordinated by the Office of Life Sciences (action 3)

Regulators will continue to engage with the regenerative medicine community to ensure the regulatory process functions in a way that is accessible (action 5). As the new Health Research Regulatory Authority is established, there will be more opportunities to join up all the regulation in one place.

and action 10 signals the government’s intention to develop an ongoing national strategy for regenerative medicine in the UK

In recognition of its potential as a driver for the UK economy and future healthcare, the Government will work towards an integrated, national strategy for regenerative medicine that builds on the strengths of the country’s science, industry and healthcare sectors.

What next?

Medical research charities are focused on developing new treatments for the patient and regenerative medicine offers huge potential to do this. We will keep working with the government to develop a strategy that works and ensure charity investment into regenerative medicine is as effective as possible.

Posted in: Policy