Stem cell therapies offer potential treatments for a wide range of diseases that involve the failure of tissues and organs from blood to brain. Yet most scientists agree that there is still a great deal to learn about such cells before they can realistically be applied in the clinic. At Oxford more than 42 research groups in 17 different departments are actively engaged in exploring the many unanswered questions. With funding from the Oxford Martin School, the Oxford Stem Cell Institute links these groups in a network of excellence that fosters communication and collaborative projects.
‘Our idea was to provide a virtual institute of people with common interests who would continue to apply their knowledge within their locality’, says co-director Paul Fairchild. ‘Stem cell biology is applicable to many disease states: one of Oxford’s strengths is that it has so much diverse experience, from basic science to clinical application.’
Stem cells have the potential to develop into any of the 200 or so cell types that make up the living body, or to reproduce themselves. Martin Evans’s Nobel-prizewinning work on mice in the early 1980s showed that such cells can be extracted from embryos a few days after fertilisation, and grown indefinitely in laboratory cultures. The successful development of human in vitro fertilisation since the 1970s means that human embryos are available for research in countries where the necessary legal and ethical framework exists, including the UK.
A decade ago scientists in the US extracted the first human embryonic stem (ES) cells, and since 2004 the UK has had its own ‘bank’ of ES cell lines. Others have identified populations of stem-like cells that persist in the adult. The nuclear transfer technique that produced Dolly the sheep showed that, adult cells could be ‘reprogrammed’ to generate a source of ES cells – a process known as therapeutic cloning. And even more recently, Japanese and American scientists have turned adult human skin cells into stem cells by inserting the genes for four regulatory factors into their DNA.
Oxford scientists in the Department of Zoology were early pioneers in investigating the regenerative capacities of mammalian stem cells. Sir Richard Gardner chairs the Royal Society Working Group on Stem Cells and Therapeutic Cloning, and OSCI continues to benefit from his influence. After more than three decades of stem cell research, Chris Graham is currently focusing on the reprogramming of adult cells through transferring their nuclei into ES cells that have had their genetic material removed.
While their therapeutic potential remains largely theoretical, stem cells, whether from embryonic or adult sources, provide the means to unlock many of the secrets of development and regeneration. These pages illustrate the extraordinary diversity of research at Oxford in the groups that make up the OSCI network.