03:45am Thursday 17 October 2019

Ban on stem cell patents could impede new Alzheimer’s treatments

Scientists in the UK are concerned that they will not be able to get funding for their work. Without the protection of patents, the vital investment from industry to turn laboratory breakthroughs into clinical treatments will be lost. This is also a concern for medical research charities who fund pioneering research using stem cells and very often depend on collaborations with pharmaceutical companies to take discoveries forward. The UK is very good at stem cell research, and this is a big growth area bringing lots of economic benefits. In its Plan for Growth, published alongside the 2010 Budget, the government identified healthcare & life sciences as one of the growth areas that should be supported.

There are 820,000 people in the UK living with dementia, and this number set to rise to 1 million by 2025 if a cure is not found. UK scientists are global leaders in the dementia field and it is vital that all research methods that offer the best hope to dementia sufferers now and in the future are supported.

Alzheimer’s Research UK funds research that offers the greatest hope in defeating dementia, including research using stem cells. The unique ability of stem cells to grow into any other type of cell makes them useful for research. One way dementia researchers can use stem cells is to turn them into nerve cells. This gives them a way to study brain cells, and the effects of Alzheimer’s, in the lab. Stem cell research has the potential to increase our understanding about what happens in the brain when Alzheimer’s takes hold. If we can understand what causes the brain cells to die we will have a better chance of finding ways to prevent cell death and fight the disease. We are currently supporting 2 projects, out of 127, that use embryonic stem cells. Both of these are using stem cells to produce brain cells in order to gain a better understanding of the processes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease.

In the dementia field, the primary bottleneck to the development of disease-modifying (rather than symptom-modifying) therapies is at the level of pre-clinical and basic research. At the moment there are no treatments for Alzheimer’s and other dementias that use stem cells. The science behind stem cell therapy is still at an early stage and there is no evidence yet to suggest this method will be able to help people with dementia. However, advances in basic research do need to be translated forward into a clinical context and interventional trials are an ultimate goal. The majority of these are likely to be funded by the pharmaceutical/biotechnology sector. Should the potential for innovation arise through embryonic stem cell research, a ban on patents would disable the process. It could also lead government and other funders to cut investment in stem cell research altogether, which will remove a valuable method of inquiry into devastating diseases like dementia.

EuroStemCell, a European project bringing together stem cell researchers, provides more information on this issue. This AMRC blog also outlines concerns about the ruling.

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