Dublin college’s Bahrain campus seeks ‘holy grail’ of stem-cell therapy

The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) has assembled a global team of scientists to establish stem cell-based research that could offer simple and affordable treatments for hundreds of thousands of people with previously incurable conditions, writes Justine Smith

The work, being carried out on the college’s campus in the kingdom of Bahrain, is primarily looking at finding a treatment for type I diabetes which would free sufferers from a lifetime of medical intervention and long-term deterioration of their health using pluripotent stem cells – cells derived from any part of the body which can be “reprogrammed” to repair damaged or injured tissue.

Many leading scientists say this stem cell technology could one day pave the way for cures for a host of diseases, from cancer to AIDs, Motor Neurone Disease to Parkinson’s, as well as tackling deafness. blindness and creating replacement organs for transplant. However, its cost and complexity, plus the risk of rejection by the body’s immune system, have limited its applications to date.

Professor Stephen Atkin said: “The pioneering research being conducted at the RCSI’s campus in the Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain could lead to the discovery of the ‘holy grail’ of stem cell therapy to make it more widely accessible, useful, and affordable”.

Prof. Atkin, an internationally-renowned expert on diabetes and endocrinology, the treatment of hormone-related diseases, said: “Pluripotent stem cells are the most advanced development in regenerative medicine and cellular therapy. We have state of the art labs in place in the RCSI and at the nearby King Hamad University Hospital and we are bringing in some of the best expertise from around the world to make the RCSI Bahrain a world-leading research centre.

“I’m proud and excited to be part of this global team of experts and we are grateful to the university and the government of Bahrain for their backing. Bahrain is at the centre of cutting-edge medical technology, and this could really put us on the map.”

The first human pluripotent stem cell line was derived from a human embryo in 1998 but progress has been held back due to ethical concerns. However, in 2006 scientists generated Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) which can be generated in the laboratory from any cell of the human body by a process called reprogramming. These iPSCs can be directed to further create an unlimited supply of any cells of the human body to replace those that are diseased and damaged.

The current aim of the stem cell research at RCSI Bahrain is to establish efficient new methods and techniques for stem cell research and, in the long term, generate pancreatic beta cells that can be transplanted into Type I diabetic patients in turn rendering them free of daily insulin administration.

The research team include Dr Shahryar Khattak, who is a pluripotent stem cell and genome engineering expert and director of the stem cell unit, will establish the iPSC research and genome engineering platforms to develop pancreatic beta cells and islets.

Professor Michael Keogh, chair of the Regenerative Medicine laboratory, will also explore the use of stem cells to regenerate tissue damaged by high blood sugar levels in diabetes patients to help heal wounds and prevent amputations while Professor Alexandra Butler will be looking at the use of insulin-producing beta cells in diabetes and explore delivery systems for transplantation of the stem cell derived beta cells into patients.

Professor Atkin is a member of the Royal College of Physicians, and a graduate of Liverpool University and Hull University. He was previously Professor of Diabetes and Endocrinology at Hull York Medical School and a Senior Lecturer at Hull University.

Bahrain is one of only four countries in the world which has developed protocols for human clinical trials and the RCSI team is planning to undertake such clinical trials with the first diabetes patients there in just a few years

RCSI, founded in Dublin in 1784, established the Medical University of Bahrain in 2003, 30 years after its first association with the kingdom.

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