Regenerative Medicine for Region’s Economy
The word “revolutionary” is overused, but there is a consensus that regenerative medicine — a set of new techniques that restore function by replacing or restoring human tissues and organs — has the potential to revolutionise medical science.
For centuries, we have been fighting disease by killing pathogens and replacing parts of the body when they become damaged or cease to function. We have cleaned and stitched wounds and provided splints for broken limbs, but medics have essentially been reduced to the role of onlookers in the actual processes of repair and regeneration of the human body.
Regenerative medicine is changing that. For the first time, we are intervening directly in these systems and engineering repairs to stimulate tissue regeneration that would otherwise not be possible. We can now repair a dying heart with new cells or restore a damaged knee joint with cartilage developed in a lab.
Apart from the transformation this promises for healthcare, these technologies represent a major economic opportunity. Their global value has grown from $1 billion to $5 billion over the past three years and, according to the Government’s Eight Great Technologies report, Britain has “a leading position” in the field.
The North – and specifically Yorkshire – adds to this strength. We host some of the brightest success stories in the commercial development of regenerative medicine in the UK. The University of Leeds spinout Tissue Regenix Group plc, based in York, is one of the most successful medical technology spinouts from a British university in recent years, with a current market capitalisation of £145 million.
Our Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are helping to build up critical mass across their City regions. Healthcare technologies are a particular focus of Sheffield LEP, while the Leeds LEP is collaborating with partner institutions to promote the city as a centre of excellence in health innovation including R&D in regenerative medicine.
Underpinning all this activity are our universities’ strengths in regenerative medicine.
The University of Leeds is highlighted in the Eight Great Technologies report as a “world-class” research centre in the field. Key innovations from Leeds include patented methods to remove cells and DNA from natural tissues, creating decellularised scaffolds that can be implanted into patients without triggering an adverse immune response. This technology underpins Tissue Regenix Group’s products and is also being developed in human-tissue based treatments by the NHS Blood & Transplant Tissue Services.
Another Leeds technology — “self-assembling peptides” (SAPs) — rebuilds tooth enamel, avoiding the need for conventional drilling and filling of teeth, and is being commercialised by credentis ag. Other researchers are developing practical stem cell-based therapies for musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and neural disease.
Leeds’ work has been backed by major investment. The £11.2m WELMEC Centre of Excellence in Medical Engineering is focussing on medical devices and regenerative therapies that repair, regenerate and replace diseased or damaged tissues. The £5.7m Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Medical Devices (MeDe Innovation) is transforming the way replacement joints and other implants are made, and the £3.2 million EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, announced last year, is funding 50 PhD studentships in the field over the next five years.
Two major initiatives are turning this research into jobs, supporting the growth of companies and contributing to better healthcare. Leeds’ own medical technology innovation is unified under a single umbrella, the Medical Technologies Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC), with a team of innovation professionals responsible for accelerating commercial development. It is currently working with 66 company partners and £57 million has already been invested by industry in products developed in partnership with the IKC.
Leeds also hosts Regener8, the UK network for the translation of regenerative therapies that brings together 150 academic members and 200 industry partners in regenerative medicine. Regener8 has been established by the N8 group of research-leading northern universities that includes Leeds, Sheffield and York.
Over at the University of Sheffield, a £4.5 million ‘Hub’ adds to our region’s remarkable research-led expertise in this field. The Hub is part of a £25 million investment from three UK research councils to support the development of regenerative therapies for conditions including Parkinson’s disease, eye disorders and deafness.
Scientists at the Hub have used embryonic stem cells to treat a common form of hearing loss and are now a step closer to a cure for deafness. Sheffield engineers have also used stem cells to repair eye damage that results from accidents or disease. This new technique may help millions of people across the world to retain – or even regain – their sight.
Further pioneering research at Sheffield includes the development of new techniques to help nerves heal faster. Novel implants are being designed that use tiny polymer tubes to bridge the gaps between damaged nerves to help them regrow, while a new technique that uses a tiny sample of a patient’s own tissue to grow Schwann cells which boost and amplify nerve growth is also under development.
Scientists also tackle the translation of laboratory research into new treatments and applications on an industrial scale.
One of the biggest challenges is to find cost effective methods to manufacture thousands of millions of cells under uniform and controlled conditions, so all patients can benefit from regenerative treatments, not just the small numbers who rely on small-scale laboratory tissue culture techniques today. A major project at the Hub, in collaboration with universities from across the UK, is exploring how to scale up production.
As well as technological progress, it is also important that the organisations that develop, regulate and implement new medical treatments are ready and able to do so. The University of York’s Professor Andrew Webster leads the £1.5M REGenableMED project that examines these issues. For regenerative medicine to achieve its potential to revolutionise patient care, emerging products must be accommodated into existing health care regulations and adopted by organisations that are accustomed to using more conventional medical products. REGenableMED will shed light on what it takes to translate laboratory discoveries into improved treatments for patients, paving the way for Yorkshire and the UK to compete at a global level.
Other York researchers are making important progress in the fields of joint and muscle diseases. Dr Paul Genever is the York lead scientist for the £6M Arthritis Research UK Tissue Engineering Centre – a collaborative project funded by Arthritis Research UK. Dr Genever is exploring methods to rejuvenate old adult stem cells to re-establish their capacity to repair damaged tissues. Of particular interest is his discovery that stressing the cells in a particular way can restore the ability of human cells to form cartilage, providing a promising route to new treatments for osteoarthritis.
Meanwhile, a York colleague, Dr Gonzalo Blanco, is trying to understand why muscles grow when they work hard, but shrink when they remain inactive. Dr Blanco’s research has shown that altering the expression of certain genes in muscles makes them stronger and bigger, even in the absence of physical exercise. This presents the possibility of new treatments to prevent the muscle loss that occurs in immobilised patients, or during disease and aging.
Notably, York scientists have also pioneered methods to produce functioning bladder tissue outside of the body. Professor Jenny Southgate has developed the world’s only laboratory-grown functional “urothelium”- the organised cell layer that lines the inside of the bladder. Not only does this serve as a valuable research tool for the study of bladder disease and the development of medicines, but it also holds immense potential for replacement bladder engineering.
I believe that Yorkshire will reap significant benefits from regenerative medicine, thanks to cooperation between our local universities and strong links with business. It’s not just about better health and wellbeing; this exciting field of medicine is poised to regenerate the economic strength of our region too.