Regenerative medicine is an exciting emerging field in medicine that develops new living tissue to replace and repair diseased tissue, often using stem cell therapies. But as Professor Fiona Watt Director of the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King’s College London explains, in different ways regenerative medicine has been around for while. ‘In terms of treating people, blood donation is an example of regenerative medicine which has been available in the National Health Service and very successful for a long time.’
While the leaps in gene technology get headlines Professor Watt points to other less obvious developments in the area, ‘for example studies showing you can expand human skin cells in a petri dish and graft them back on to treat burns and wounds. Those kinds of achievements progress steadily.’
In 2012 for example the Nobel Prize was won by Shinya Yamanaka and John Gurdon for work on what is called ‘Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells’ (IPS), mature adult cells that can be reprogrammed into immature cells. As Professor Watt explains, ‘John Gurdon had been doing studies on frogs in the 1950s and 60s talking about the ability to regenerate tadpoles from the nucleus of an adult. It’s a field that has been appreciated for a long time but it’s really come to the fore in the last fifteen years or so.’
Benefiting your health
This area is one of the strategic priorities of the UK government and one of the strengths of the UK is that alongside the high quality science there is the National Health Service, which as Professor Watt points out, ‘makes it possible to identify and monitor patients across the country and a good way of identifying patients who can benefit. It’s an honest and safe way of evaluating treatments and rolling out treatments that would benefit the population.’
The growing scientific importance of this area for the future of healthcare is signalled by the development of the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform, an initiative which brings together a variety of different expertises into five research hubs. Professor Watt is head of the Immunomodulation Hub, which looks art harnessing the immune system for better outcomes in regenerative medicine. ‘One of the things that makes it such an exciting field,’ says Professor Watt, ‘is that it’s dependent on interactions and collaborations across many disciplines. You have the scientists in cell and biology talking to people who make bones using 3D printers, people who are interested in engineering and then clinicians of course who have to identify and put into practice the applications.’ Professor Watt’s hub, as part of the immunology community, is addressing the fact that ‘we have to think about whether these new therapies will be well tolerated in the body. So it’s a very collaborative field of research so that’s what makes it so interdisciplinary.’
When treating certain diseases conventional treatments tend to hit all the tissue in the body. ‘With cell therapy you could deliver the treatment just to the part of the body that needs it,’ says Professor Watt. ‘The big hope is that whereas some diseases need the medication for the rest of your life, with a cell-based therapy usually one or two treatments might be curative so you would be able to get people to have a quality of life and need less intervention. Those are the things we are thinking about. And of course regarding diseases which are incurable, there is a great hope and aspiration that they will now become curable.’
The British Council works to bring together Israeli and British based scientists working in the field of Regenerative Medicine through the BIRAX initiative. BIRAX (the Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership) is a £10 million initiative of the British Embassy in Israel and the British Council in collaboration with the Pears Foundation and the UJIA.