iPS cells: Lübeck researchers in major EU project
Stem cell researchers from Lübeck are taking a central role in a €52 million European research programme. Together with scientists from across Europe, they are working on the development of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) for use in drug testing. The Section of Clinical and Molecular Neurogenetics at the Lübeck Clinic is occupied with patient recruitment for - and characterisation of - biomaterials. The Lübeck-based scientists are also exploring the role played by iPS cells in diseases of the central nervous system.
iPS cells – normal body cells that can be brought back to an original state using molecular tricks – could be a valuable tool for personalised medicine in the future. While only identical cells are formed by ordinary somatic cells (i.e. 'of the body') – a liver cell always only divides into other liver cells – the artificially youthened cells have many more paths of development open to them. For example, a nerve cell can be bred from a skin cell, which can then be used to directly test the effects of specific active substances. To date, researchers have had to depend on 'more-or-less suitable' cell lines for such tests. If a sufficiently quantity of iPS cells are available in the future, this will no longer be necessary. What is more, because iPS cells contain the genetic makeup of the individual patients, treatment success can also be predicted individually in each case. This would ensure that those patients treated with a certain drug will actually be those that stand to benefit.
Funded by the Innovative Medicines Initiative
Many questions remain to be answered before this becomes a reality, however. To promote research in this area, the European Commission and the trade association European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) have established the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI). This aims to increase the competitiveness of pharmaceutical research institutes in the European Union, and is funded by the EU’s 7th Research Framework Programme.
Many different approaches
An evaluation process has been carried out to select the most promising projects funded by the IMI; one year ago, eleven different consortia promoted and presented their project ideas. The application from the consortium Stembancc, which also includes the University of Lübeck, ultimately achieved first place after two international jury rounds. Stembancc comprises numerous academic institutions as well as eleven major pharmaceutical companies and the Roche management. The common objective is to conduct research into iPS cells for neurodegenerative diseases. This takes in a wide range of approaches and techniques.
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"In Lübeck we are going to erect a sample bank with DNA and skin samples from 500 Parkinson's patients from all over Europe," says Philip Seibler, head of the Lübeck iPS working group. At other sites, samples will be collected for the detailed study of Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and diabetes. The threads of patient recruitment and tissue characterisation have come together in Lübeck. Christine Klein, head of the Section of Clinical and Molecular Neurogenetics, is coordinating this project.
The Lübeck samples will help to shed light on the basic mechanisms of Parkinson's disease. In recent years, researchers have found a total of six genes in which mutation is associated with an increased risk of development of the brain disease. What is known at this time is that these mutations result in the dying-off of specific nerve cells, although researchers do not know why this is the case. "Through comparisons between iPS cells and healthy cells, we hope to find out which mechanisms result in cell death," says Seibler. The Lübeck scientists have been granted about €800,000 to carry out their work. In other areas, Stembancc has specific application areas well mapped out: For example, pharma companies are working on integrating the iPS cells into an active ingredient-testing system. This will enable the many thousands of substances in giant substance libraries to be combed through for substances that can stop cell death, for example. These molecules could then be used as a starting point for drug development.