Stem cells in the spotlight
Most adult cells can only divide to produce other cells of the same type – for example, skin cells can only make other skin cells, and blood cells can only make other blood cells. In contrast, embryonic stem cells are ‘pluripotent’, i.e. able to give rise to all the different kinds of cell that make up the human body. However, researchers are now able to reprogramme ordinary adult cells to create so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Like embryonic stem cells, iPS cells are able to generate any kind of cell; as such, they offer researchers a good supply of different kinds of human cell that can be used in research and drug development.
For example, iPS cells can be used to study disease biology, identify markers of disease and potential drug targets, and test drug safety and efficacy. In addition, iPS cells help to reduce the use of animals in research.
This is a relatively new technology – the first iPS cells were only created in 2006 (a feat that won their inventor a Nobel prize). Since then, scientists worldwide have created hundreds of human iPS cell lines and some cell banks have been set up. However, the quality of these lines varies enormously (some may not even be pluripotent), and few lines are accompanied by sufficient clinical and other data to ensure that researchers are using the right cell for their needs. Finally, access to these cell lines is often tightly restricted. For this reason, demand for high quality, well characterised iPS cells vastly outstrips supply.
Europe’s go-to resource for iPS cells
EBiSC’s goal is to establish a centralised facility where academics, biotech companies, and big pharmaceutical companies can store and access high-quality, well-characterised iPS cells covering a range of disease areas as well as cells from healthy donors. For its part, the bank will provide standardised protocols for the storage, retrieval, culture, and differentiation into different cells types, plus a searchable catalogue where cells can be requested based on specific characteristics or disease areas. Samples of the cell lines in the catalogue will be shipped to scientists around the world.
The main processing and storage facility will be operated by Roslin Cells at the Babraham Research Campus in Cambridge, UK, while the distribution of the cell lines will be coordinated by Public Health England’s European Cell Culture Collection (ECACC). The project partners themselves will generate and deposit the first lines to the bank, but the project will also recieve deposits from other projects and organisations, including IMI projects working in this area. The storage facility in Cambridge will accommodate many thousands of cell lines, and additional storage capacity is available at the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering in Germany.
On the business side, once the initial collection of cell lines is in place, the project will quickly start distributing cells to the scientific community. The project will then scale up its activities to become fully operational by 2016, having in excess of 1 000 lines in its catalogue.. The objective is for the initiative to be self-sustaining financially by 2019 and become an independent legal entity, distributing iPS cells worldwide on a not-for-profit basis.
A focus on excellence
In addition to its business objectives, EBiSC has the goal of becoming a centre of excellence for applied scientific excellence, by leading the way in the use and development of the most advanced methods for characterising, processing, storing and distributing iPS cells. In addition to experts in stem cell biology and banking, the project includes leaders in fields such as data management, law and social sciences. This will ensure that cells sent out by EBiSC are of a high quality from a scientific point of view and that their use is in line with relevant ethical requirements.
Benefits for all
By standardising procedures and ensuring the quality of the cell lines and associated data, EBiSC will help academic and clinical researchers shed new light on the biology of diverse diseases. For the pharmaceutical efficiency, the cell lines will represent an important tool for carrying out early stage drug testing. For patients, the project represents an important step in ensuring that iPS cells realise their potential as a tool to improve and speed up the development of better and safer treatments.