Milestone reached in sharing international stem cell knowledge

Mon 18 Jun 2007

More than 80 leading scientists from around the world have shared their knowledge about human embryonic stem cell lines to accelerate the discovery of potential therapies.

The scientists, part of the International Stem Cell Initiative, have characterised 59 human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines. As part of this, they have determined a set of markers within the cells to help scientists around the world reproduce their work and move it forward. The results of the study, which involved 17 laboratories from 11 different countries, are published in the July issue of Nature Biotechnology.

Professor Peter Andrews, who is leading the International Stem Cell Initiative, explained: “Scientists will use the markers to understand the differences and similarities between the different human embryonic cell lines that are available through the International Stem Cell Initiative. The effect will be to move research forward in a way that may not have been possible by individual labs or countries.”

The International Stem Cell Initiative is a project commissioned by the International Stem Cell Forum (ISCF) - an organisation that brings together the world’s leading agencies involved in funding stem cell research. The Forum’s primary mission is to promote best practice in the area of stem cell research.

Phase one of the initiative, which had been allocated £426,000 as well as resources from laboratories in the member countries, is now complete.

Professor Andrews added: “The work provides key criteria for identifying human embryonic stem cell lines and gives a basis for further research into the mechanisms by which a stem cell maintains a state from which it is able to be directed to turn into a number of different cell types.”
“One major finding from this first phase of the ISCI project was that the 59 cell lines under review shared a number of key molecular signatures, despite their different genetic constitutions and the various culture techniques to which they have been subjected,” said Dr Paul Gokhale, of the Centre for Stem Cell Research at the University of Sheffield, one of the central resources laboratories in the ICSI project.
Professor Andrews, who leads the Centre for Stem Cell Research at Sheffield, added: “By making the registry of the 59 cell lines and their molecular characteristics freely available to the wider scientific community, ISCI is providing the openness, reliability and ability for scientists to reproduce and extend each others’ work. This type of initiative is only possible through an organisation like the International Stem Cell Forum which was able to bring together researchers from around the world to develop the basis for the eventual use of these exciting cells. Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the project was the degree of openness and collaboration between the different participating groups.”

The study used several approaches to identify a reliable set of markers to establish human embryonic stem cell identity, including profiling 93 different genes in the cell lines. These validated markers will serve as vital identifiers of hESCs used in biomedical research and drug discovery studies. They will help researchers to ensure that common standards and procedures are in place and allow cross-checking of data between laboratories.

The findings are a crucial first step for ensuring that future advances in the field of stem cell research involve internationally co-ordinated quality standards.

The Forum has recently agreed further funding of US$2 million for the next phase of the ISCI’s work which will focus on the culture media used to grow cell lines and the genetic variations that can occur over prolonged periods of growth in vitro. The funding will also help to expand the embryonic stem cell registry to include new lines.

The Chief Executive of the UK Medical Research Council, Professor Colin Blakemore, who chairs the ISCF, said: “The Forum is committed to stimulating collaborations and providing backbone funding to allow these to flourish. The potential of stem cell research is great. We hope stem cell science will lead to the treatment of all manner of illnesses, from diabetes to multiple sclerosis. By creating this registry and making it freely available, the ISCI will not only be a great resource for scientists across the world, but will set the tone for the collaborative spirit in which we hope research will continue to be carried out, for the benefit of the many, not the few.”

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Notes to Editors:


The principle behind the organisation of the ISCI project was that the ISCF provided funding for ‘central’ activities, whereas individual funding agencies in the different countries supported directly the work conducted by the individual participating laboratories.

The project was established along a hub-and-spoke principle. All work with the different cell lines was conducted by the various participating laboratories according to standard protocols provided by the consortium. A central archive reference stock of key hybridomas (the cells that produce monoclonal antibodies) widely used in studies of hESC was established at the UK Stem Cell Bank, and samples of antibody were provided to the participating laboratories for studies of antigen expression. In turn, the individual laboratories provided samples of RNA and DNA from their cells, which were analysed centrally for expression of specific genes and for imprinting patterns.

In most cases the different cell lines were grown and analysed by the laboratories in which they had been derived. In the case of the lines derived by D. Melton and C Cowan, Harvard University, the cells were cultured and analysed at the Centre for Stem Cell Biology, University of Sheffield, with additional support from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Four cell lines were additionally grown and analysed in one of two ‘secondary’ laboratories, providing some insight into the stability of the cells when transferred from one laboratory to another.

2. UK participation

Three labs in the UK have contributed stem cell lines to the project: the Centre for Stem Cell Research at the University of Sheffield, the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory, King’s College London, and the International Centre for Life, Newcastle University.

The central resources laboratories in the UK which worked on the characterisation effort included the Centre for Stem Cell Research at the University of Sheffield, the UK Stem Cell Bank at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Controls, and the Institute for Stem Cell Medicine at the University of Cambridge.

3. Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbour

The two workshops which allowed the participating scientists to discuss the data face to face were hosted by the Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbour, Maine. In addition the Computational Science Unit at the Jackson Laboratory carried out the statistical analysis for the project.

4. Biotech companies which have collaborated on the project include Applied Biosystems, Chemicon, Invitrogen and Geneservices Ltd.

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