Ireland has broken new ground in the field of adult stem cell research in recent months.  The Centre for Cell Manufacturing Ireland at NUI Galway is the first-ever facility in Ireland to receive a licence from the Irish Medicines Board to manufacture culture expanded adult stem cells for human use in clinical trials.  It is now one of only six licensed facilities in Europe.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are a class of undifferentiated cells that are able to differentiate into specialised cell types.  Stem cells are categorised into two types, which is determined by whether they have been sourced from embryos (embryonic stem cells) or adult tissue (adult stem cells).  The embryonic stem cell has the potential to develop into any type of cell in the human body and can be engineered to produce new tissues or organs.  Adult stem cells can be used to generate a range of cell types from the originating organ, or even regenerate the entire original organ.

Future plans at CCMI

In recent weeks, researchers in Galway announced that, following successful initial clinical trials, stem cells could be used to treat osteoarthritis within five years.  A trial funded by the Health Research Board and Science Foundation Ireland will investigate the use of mesenchymal stem cells isolated from bone marrow for the treatment of critical limb ischemia, a severe blockage in the arteries of the lower extremities, which markedly reduces blood-flow and, if left untreated, can lead to amputation. 

The research facility at the CCMI will play a key role going forward in ensuring that adult stem cell research in Ireland remains internationally competitive by securing funding from EU funding sources - in particular, the Horizon 2020 programme, which is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over seven years.  Securing EU funding of this nature would be expected to attract significant additional private investment, and represents a significant opportunity for economic growth and job creation in the medtech sector in Ireland. 

Embryonic stem cell research - the next step?

Like many programmes before it, the current Programme for Government contains a commitment to legislate on and regulate stem cell research.  The current lacuna in the law in Ireland relates to embryonic stem cell research, which has historically been a controversial issue as it involves the destruction of a human embryo.  This issue was most recently considered by the Supreme Court of Ireland in the case of Roche v Roche, where it ruled that currently, an embryo in vitro does not enjoy constitutional protection.  Without legislative change, or a constitutional amendment, practices such as embryonic stem cell research remain unregulated.  This legislative vacuum leaves the issue of embryonic stem cell research still very much uncertain and, in practical terms, means that breakthroughs in Ireland are far more likely to be made in the field of adult stem cell research.

In the meantime, the landmark approval of adult stem cell research at CCMI and availability of funding makes Ireland an attractive location for ground-breaking research and clinical trials using adult stem cells.

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