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Stem cell research

Stem cells have two key properties: they have the ability to reproduce themselves, and they can be directed to develop into the different specialised cell types that make up the tissues and organs of the body.

Bone marrow transplants and skin grafting are established examples of stem cell replacement therapies, but the potential of stem cell therapies extends beyond their current usage.

Stem cell research may offer hope to those suffering from incurable degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Motor Neurone Disease. Stem cells could also be used as a source of healthy human cells for testing the effects and side-effects of potential new drugs, providing an alternative to some animal testing.

BBSRC has funded stem cell research since its inception and invested £12.3M (2007-08) in this research. Much of the basic understanding of stem cells has been learned from studying them in animals. Research on stem cells is crucial to advancing our understanding of developmental biology, and also provides the potential to identify new drugs.

BBSRC contributes to the UK's world leading national capacity in stem cell science.

Some BBSRC-funded research projects in this area

Case study

Scientists at The University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Stem Cell Research (ISCR) have discovered a protein (Notch) that directs unspecialised embryonic stem cells to become cells of the nervous system.

This finding, from research funded by BBSRC, MRC, the Wellcome Trust and the European Union, is among the latest of a series of discoveries made by ISCR scientists about the biology of stem cells. These studies are paving the way for the controlled laboratory growth of stem cells for uses such as modelling diseases and testing the effects of new drugs.

Public engagement

The source of human stem cells can raise concerns. In the UK human stem cell research is strictly regulated by guidelines and legislation. BBSRC is leading a Sciencewise-funded project, with the Medical Research Council, to develop public dialogue activities around the science and social and ethical issues of stem cell research. During 2008 a series of public workshops was held. The outcomes were published in December 2008 and can by found on our 'Dialogue activities: stem cells' page (see related links).

For further details please refer to our Science in Society section.