For years, we have heard in the media that stem cell research and tissue engineering will deal a master blow to major diseases and injuries. So, why have the promised therapies not materialised? Science this complex does not happen overnight. But with the right team, comprehensive approach and enough funds, the hurdles can be overcome, suggest researchers behind the EU-backed STEPS project.
European scientists have embarked on a major clinical engineering project that should see human tissue grown from stem cells available for transplant. Applying a systems approach, the plan is to turn their findings rapidly into technologies targeting major illnesses, in particular heart failure, diabetes, chronic ulcers and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
|Stepping into a world where treatments for major illnesses could one day be much more targeted.|
The recently launched project, called ‘Systems Approach to Tissue Engineering Products and Processes' (STEPS), is being funded by the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6, 2002-2006) for research to the tune of around €25 million. Led by the University of Liverpool and Italian pharmaceutical company Fidia, the four-year project is adamant that its 23 academic and industrial partners across Europe have what it takes to ‘fast track' tissue engineering.
“This is not really being achieved anywhere in the world yet,” suggests professor David Williams, director of the UK Centre for Tissue Engineering at Liverpool University. But this is where STEPS will step in. “This major new project will bring together a team with critical mass and a range of expertise from stem cell biology to bio-manufacturing processes, including ethics and business models,” he explains.
Since the announcement of its launch in September 2005, STEPS has set itself a rigorous research programme in order to meet its goals in such a short timeframe. But the scientists are under no illusions that it will be easy.
Stepping up to the plate
“For tissue engineering to be successful clinically, it has to be able to generate exactly the right type of tissue, specific to a patient, in a cost-effective manner,” says professor Williams. And the fact that tissue engineering is an emerging field with many unknowns makes matters that much more complex.
Before the approach can prove itself therapeutically against chronic injuries and diseases, life scientists need to perfect the process of removing human cells, such as stem cells, from blood or bone marrow, and then to encourage those cells to produce new tissue through the use of growth factors.
For example, researchers in Liverpool have been developing methods of growing a variety of tissue, including human arteries, from adult stem cells. Blood vessels grown in the laboratory could be used to replace furred up arteries in patients suffering from coronary heart disease, they predict.
However, the team concedes that, for the project as a whole to be a success, a totally new infrastructure is needed. This should be based on the idea that the best way to commercialise and implement tissue engineering clinically is to be systematic about it and to make sure all partners are feeding into the process.