Research Councils UK has announced that it has awarded grants totalling 16.5 million to universities in the UK for a variety of stem cell research projects. There have been 57 grants funded to eighteen different universities. Five of the UKs research councils have provided the funds: the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC).

The investment aims to speed the development of new treatments and cures from the laboratory to the clinic and the projects cover many aspects of stem cell research. Some projects will focus on developing new treatments for major diseases and disabilities, such as spinal injuries, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimers and Parkinsons disease. For example, Dr Geoffrey Raisman, of the National Institute of Medical Research in London, will take stem cells taken from the lining of the nose and use them to attempt to repair spinal cord damage in humans. Trials in rats have already shown promise. Other projects aim to learn more about how stem cells function, such as how they differentiate to become different tissues. Money granted to the University of Sheffield will go to establishing a Human Embryonic Stem Cell Resource Centre, led by Prof Peter Andrews. The centre will provide access to expertise, resources, facilities and training in the field. Improvements in research skills and standards will lead, it is hoped, to a reduction in tissue use.

These grants are yet another signal of the lead the UK is taking in the area of stem cell research, after the opening of the UK Stem Cell Bank earlier in May (see newsletter article May 2004). As stated by Research Councils UK, these strategic grants will ensure that the UK is at the forefront of the international research community working on stem cells, and is in a position to lead on the considerable health and economic implications the field promises in the future. Their announcement also notes that the Economic and Social Research Council will be funding additional grants covering the governance, innovation and social transformation issues related to stem cell technologies. In addition, they will be outlining their future plans for looking more closely at the social science issues underlying stem cell research.

More information about the grants that have been funded and contact information for the research councils involved can be found in the Research Councils UK press announcement.