Researchers in Scotland are taking advantage of the U.K. government's liberal position on stem cell research, and they now have 30% of the U.K. licenses to conduct embryonic stem cell research. One of these licenses is allowing researchers at Edinburgh University Medical School (www.ed.ac.uk) and the Roslin Institute to carry out ground-breaking research on bone-repair mechanisms.
According to Brendon Noble, Ph.D., lecturer at the Edinburgh University Medical School, "In the U.K., up to 20% of patients over 70 who suffer hip fractures die within one year, while in a large number of the others, fractures severely restrict their independence."
Dr. Noble's colleague, Professor Hamish Simpson Ph.D., head of Edinburgh University Medical School's Orthopaedics and Trauma Department, adds, "In fact, there are more hip fracture-related deaths in this age group than those caused by breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer combined. If we can determine how to regenerate bone in these patients using stem cells, this will be a major triumph."
"Mesenchymal cells taken from old folks can do everything that children's cells will do in a dish. But put them back into a hostile environment, such as the body of a sick or aged individual, and they revert back to the original state they were before they were cultured," Dr. Noble explains.
"One area we are working on is trying to fool cells into thinking they are in favorable surroundings by using supportive scaffolds to create a microenvironment that the cells like. We believe that by using scaffolds even mesenchymal cells can be tricked into contributing to the repair of fractures."
As well as this applied research, Dr. Noble's group is working on basic stem cell biology. "We are in a fortunate position in Scotland in that we have the expertise and are able to work with embryonic stem cells," Dr. Noble says.
"We are studying some of the basic behaviors, such as at which points in their development do embryonic stem cells begin to differentiate into useful mesenchymal cell types. This kind of lineage study is vital research, which may show us some tricks that we can use in the manufacture of bone- and cartilage-forming cells."
"Also at Edinburgh we are doing a head-to-head comparison of the embryonic and adult cell types in terms of reparative potential since on a world scale we believe this is urgently needed. On paper, embryonic stem cells hold considerable promise as therapeutics, but the jury is still out on whether adult or embryonic stem cell are best," explains Dr. Simpson.
"Some of our preliminary findings from animal studies show that embryonic and mesenchymal stem cells behave in different ways," Dr. Simpson concludes, "and I believe there is a role for both cell types as therapeutics.
"For example, with brittle bone disease in children, their own stem cells will still have the same inherent genetic problem, and while genetic modification of the cells is possible, one can envisage that by using embryonic stem cells with healthy genetic background we might overcome this problem."