EU funding adds value to Europe’s stem cell community

EU flagThe European Commission has funded groups of European stem cell scientists to work together across national boundaries. Elena Cattaneo is coordinator of one of those groups, NeuroStemcell. Here, Elena reflects on the value of European level support for such collaborative research, and introduces the film Behind the Science - an inside view of EU research consortia.

Biology is different from mechanics. To understand the behavior of our cells in both health and disease, we need to study how they respond to different stimuli and in different environments, starting from their first appearance in our body. We need to know more about the developmental processes that bring them together during their entire lifetime. Stem cells are the entrance door to an understanding of how we form and how our tissues degenerate. Because of that, they are at the center of large investments in all developed countries and continents. They represent our great chance to find cures for many still incurable diseases.

For many years now, the European Commission has been supporting research in several disciplines by stimulating the creation of research consortia. These are short-term enterprises with long-term impacts: they bring together European scientists from different nations who are among the best experts working on a topic that is considered strategic for Europe. Within these research consortia, different scientists work together for a number of years, as if they belong to the same research institution. In this way, European funding provides enormous added value to the work of the scientific community. The alternative would be European researchers working in isolation, duplicating effort and wasting resources, thus condemning European research to lag behind other continents that invest more in innovation.

Take a look inside the world of EU research consortia with this film made by NeuroStemcell:

Behind the Science [Final cut 2012] from Luca Citron on Vimeo.

To foster this concept of a supranational, more competitive, European science there is the need for a uniform, common and collating European funding landscape. Take the stem cell field. In the U.K., Sweden, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain and other European countries there are groups that are world leaders on human embryonic stem (ES) cells. They are working to decipher the secrets that rule these cells. They are now among those few who are capable of teaching the world how to harness the natural potentialof these powerful cells in order to obtain, for example, specialized neurons or cardiac cells that could one day be used therapeutically. They are likely to be among the few who will guide Europe through the new, and as yet undeveloped (in Europe), scenario of using reprogrammed pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, in future clinical applications. EU funding brings this expertise together while incorporating younger research groups, thus creating the background for interactions across nations, disciplines, ideas, values and sentiments, and contributing to the education of future generations of EU scientists.

NeuroStemcell is one of these international EU-funded consortia and I have the privilege of being its coordinator. During the past four years of joint activities we have made discoveries that are now moving human ES cells forward, toward therapeutic applications for Parkinson’s Disease and Huntington’s Disease. NeuroStemcell scientists have demonstrated that human ES cells are capable of generating authentic neurons, whose quality and quantity other stem cell sources, so far, cannot mimic. This kind of advance would have been impossible, or at the very least much slower, without collaboration across national boundaries. In Europe we must not lose the value of being a Union when it comes to the fight against human diseases. We do not want to lose the opportunity to test the potential of human ES cells beyond the laboratory dish, especially now that we have developed strategies to precisely instruct them to become the desired specialized cell of our body. Each European laboratory participating in a  pan-European research effort will add its piece of the solution to the complex problem of understanding and repairing a damaged tissue. This joint effort saves money, time, and gives more hope for success.

Many types of stem cells will undoubtedly be useful in different areas of regenerative medicine, but embryonic stem cells have unique and valuable properties. We cannot use mesenchymal stem cells or cord blood stem cells to develop cell replacement therapies for Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease: they are not able to generate the type of neurons that die in these (and all other) neurological diseases.

The European Parliament and the EU’s funding institutions have the power to decide about a lot of money and a lot of effort that is put together by the international scientific community to influence the future of science and society worldwide. This power also carries the responsibility to take decisions about the hopes of those who suffer. We want to respond to the unmet needs of patients by continuing to exploit our thoughts, capacity, creativity and willingness to share in order to increase the chance of success. My hope is that the EU will continue to push the frontiers of medical understanding through research on all kind of stem cells, and beyond.

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Updated by: Elena Cattaneo

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