World leading laboratory aims to make life expectancy of 130 a normality

Susan Gallogly
Stem cells: PhD student Susan Gallogly sorts cells using the centre's flow cytometry facility.STV

Sitting amidst the countryside, not five miles from Arthur's Seat, medical history is being made.

Overshadowed by the white expanse of Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary, clinical trials, scientific research and medical advancements are taking place, out of sight and outwith the grasp of many minds.

These lab coated magicians might not grab the headlines like Dolly the Sheep, but their pioneering projects could soon change life as we know it - starting with a life expectancy of over 100 years.

This is the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine (SCRM), whose discoveries surrounding the multiplying and self-renewing cells are bringing us step-by-step closer to organ regeneration, tissue repair and longer-lasting life.

"The average lifespan of the human being should be 130 years - that’s what we’re working towards," says Professor Bruno Péault, who has been internationally recognised for his research into stem cells.

Launched in 2007, Edinburgh BioQuarter, a joint venture between the University of Edinburgh, NHS Lothian and Scottish Enterprise, was to be Scotland's key initiative in the development of its life sciences industry.

But is was in 2011, when it was joined by SCRM, that the BioQuarter earned a reputation as an internationally leading research centre.

Chaired by Professor Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly the Sheep, SCRM was opened to drive research into stem cells and the development of new regenerative treatments for human diseases.

Housing 230 scientists, the University of Edinburgh's £54m facility now boasts the highest concentration of stem cell scientists in Europe, and is leading the way in the fight against serious illnesses like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease.

Right now, 19 research groups are working to understand the properties of stem cells, dividing cells which act as a repair system in our bodies, and how best to control their self-renewal for use in the treatment of various diseases.

Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine

PhD student Franzi Senfeld studies skin cells under the microscope – find out how they are transformed into cardiac muscle cells in our photo gallery.

Encouraged to share ideas, studies focus on a number of different themes and clinical areas, with the building's state-of-the-art resources – everything from a cell culture facility for the isolation and culture of both mouse and human embryonic stem cells to an imaging facility providing support for miscroscopy imaging – set up to reflect this.

Among their most recent discoveries, SCRM scientists have learned how to better control stem cell behaviour for use in medicine as well as a method of boosting the immune system to improve the safety of bone marrow transplants for blood cancer patients.

But perhaps one of the most exciting and graspable moves being made by scientists behind the scenes is development in the field of organ regeneration, which would have profound effects on medical treatments.

“People used to think that organs didn't regenerate. They do - but they do it incredibly slowly," says Professor Newby, who works in collaboration with the centre.

"So what we're talking about is trying to encourage them to do it quicker. It's not what they're meant to do, it's not what they're used to doing, because in normal nature they don't need to. It's only when you have a disease that you need to.

“Whether you can stimulate that with drugs, with signals or whether we throw in some new cells to help, these are all options of ways of trying to get organs to regenerate. There is a way but it's just very complicated and we need to work that out.”

Professor Bruno Péault, who specialises in vascular regeneration, has been leading research into stem cells found in blood vessels, and their role in tissue development and repair.

“One day it would be the ultimate goal to be able to stimulate stem cells directly in situ, with the appropriate drug or hormone, to get them to regenerate. But this is science fiction at the moment,” he says.

But while the instant regeneration of a damaged organ – like a heart injured by heart failure – is a distant dream, the work done by Professor Péault and his SCRM team, in partnership with the University of California in California, is making pioneering strides in stem cell therapy.

The project has focused on multipotent stem cells – stem cells with the potential to give rise to cells of different types – which have become popular candidates for stem cell therapy but are only obtained by culturing single cells over the long term.

Professor Péault, along with his group of researchers, has managed to identify and purify these cells, which also control the effects of the immune system, without the need for culturing, reducing the time and risk involved.

This could potentially offer a significant opportunity to improve stem cell therapies and reduce the risk of cancerous tumours - an unwanted byproduct of other potential methods.

He said: “What we have done in the recent years is that we have prospectively identified novel stem cells, and have been able to purify these cells to homogeneity.

“These stem cells happen to be associated with blood vessels, which are everywhere in the body, so you can easily choose the source of these stem cells.

“A very convenient source is fat, and harvesting that is easy, it's not dangerous at all for the patient, and we have shown convincingly that with a small amount of fat we can extract enough of these stem cells to be used.

“When you culture a cell and push it to divide, you have some risk of genetic instability which could lead to cancer development, so by using these cells totally unmanipulated there is a definite advantage.

“If you want to treat an emergency patient with a cultured cell, it's not possible. You would need one to two months to culture the cells.

"Here we don't need to culture the cells, which means that the whole process should take no more than 12 hours so we can really consider treating people in emergency situations.”

The group is now preparing for the world's first clinical trials using its discovery, which should take place in Edinburgh within the next two years, and will centre on cardiac repair, cartilage regeneration and bone healing.

Partly funded by the British Heart Foundation, one of the key goals of Professor Péault's research is to replicate stem cell therapy used to treat chronic limb ischemia - a sudden lack of blood flow to a limb - for the heart.

Professor Newby, who is also British Heart Foundation's chair of cardiology, said: “The bid we've put in means the British Heart Foundation, as part of their Mending Broken Hearts appeal, is going to use the same approach and technology to try and help grow blood vessels in the leg initially, and then ultimately, our vision is to get that to the heart.”

Claire Medine, who is working on another British Heart Foundation funded project turning skin cells into heart muscle cells added: “It's a very exciting area to work in and its moved very fast in the last ten years. The fields of the stem cell research and also the cardiology are ver exciting.

“It's fantastic to be part of the Edinburgh stem cell research group.

"It has really taken off here and certainly being part of the new building and the SCRM is really good.”

Marjory Burns, director of British Heart Foundation Scotland, says: “The BHF is only able to fund this world-pioneering research in Edinburgh thanks to people making donations and fundraising for us.

"Please help us to carry on our life-saving work by raising funds for our Mending Broken Hearts Appeal. Together we can beat heart disease.”

To make a donation to the British Heart Foundation, or for support to start fundraising, email scotland@bhf.org.uk, call 0131 555 5891 or visit bhf.org.uk.

IN DETAIL

Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine

Edinburgh BioQuarter

British Heart Foundation

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