Scottish Universities Collaborate to Accelerate Drug Discovery Using Stem Cell Technology

March 6, 2017

Research teams based at the Universities of Dundee and Edinburgh are looking to partner with the pharmaceutical industry to better understand the biological processes that could allow the development of new drugs to support tissue regeneration or repair.

The National Phenotypic Screening Centre (NPSC) at the University of Dundee and the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) at the University of Edinburgh have signed a Memorandum of Understanding that commits them to work more closely together as they strive to translate novel biological discoveries into new stem cell therapies.

Regenerative medicine therapies to treat a range of debilitating diseases (including blindness, liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis and many others) are actively being developed around the world. Many of them are based on one of two approaches: implantation of stem-cell-derived cells or the use of drugs to selectively activate and mobilise the body’s own stem cells in order to replace damaged or diseased tissues. Understanding the stem cells in tissues and their supporting environment (the stem cell `niche’) is critical to both approaches.

The UK Regenerative Medicine Platform-funded “Engineering and exploiting the stem cell niche” Hub, led by the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) at the University of Edinburgh, is dedicated to further understanding of the biology of stem cell niches and to exploiting this knowledge therapeutically to improve organ regeneration through endogenous repair and cell transplantation

Finding new drugs which can activate endogenous regenerative pathways requires the development of cell-based assays that are able to reproduce the complex behaviour (the `phenotype’) of the cells and tissues in patients. The National Phenotypic Screening Centre (NPSC) at the University of Dundee specialises in developing such complex assays so they can be systematically screened using large libraries of drug-like molecules to uncover agents that can alter cell and tissue behaviour.

Close collaboration between the two centres, which together represent government investment amounting to around £35million, will allow novel biological discoveries from CRM to benefit from the expertise and industrial drug screening infrastructure provided by the NPSC, leading to the start-points for new therapies. An in-depth understanding of cell and tissue function will facilitate the search to find molecules that improve key tissue regeneration processes that could eventually be used as drugs for regenerative repair.

Professor Stuart Forbes, Director of the Centre for Regenerative Medicine and co-director of the Niche Hub, said, “Stem cell medicine is coming of age. This is a great opportunity for Scottish Universities to partner with industry to ensure we can translate excellent science to new therapies that can help patients with chronic disease.”

Dr Paul Andrews, Director of Operations at the NPSC, said, “We are very excited to be able to sign this agreement which will help cement our growing relationship with the excellent scientists that are within the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine and the wider UK Regenerative Medicine Hub network.”

UKRMP Director Dr Rob Buckle said, “This MOU between the Niche Hub and NPSC extends the growth of the UKRMP by encouraging further interactions with the wider UK research community which will help to open up new opportunities and approaches to help deliver the great promise of regenerative medicine.”


The National Phenotypic Screening Centre (NPSC) was set up by the Scottish Universities Life Science Alliance (SULSA) with £8M capital funding from the Scottish Government to provide state-of-the-art capabilities in the development and screening of physiologically-relevant assays for academia and allow close collaboration with industry. The main facility is in newly-refurbished labs within the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee (working closely with the Edinburgh Phenotypic Assay Centre at the University of Edinburgh and a sister screening lab at the Target Discovery Institute at the University of Oxford). The NPSC has an interdisciplinary group of scientists and engineers using world-class high throughput imaging platforms that can be applied to human, animal, and plant health challenges.

About the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM)

The MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) is a world leading research centre based at the University of Edinburgh. Scientists and clinicians at the CRM study stem cells, disease and tissue repair to advance human health. CRM is housed within the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine building, on the Edinburgh bioQuarter site shared by the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and the University’s Teaching and Clinical Research facilities. With state-of-the-art facilities and a 230+ team of scientists and clinicians, CRM is positioned uniquely to translate scientific knowledge to industry and the clinic. Research at CRM is aimed at developing new treatments for major diseases including cancer, heart disease, liver failure, diabetes, and degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s. CRM is led by Centre Director Prof Stuart Forbes.

About the UKRMP

The UK Regenerative Medicine Platform (UKRMP) is a £25M investment by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC). The UKRMP addresses the technical and scientific challenges associated with translating promising scientific discoveries in this area towards clinical impact, and seeks to provide a world-leading programme to promote the development of regenerative therapies. Central to the Platform are five interdisciplinary and complementary research Hubs with the necessary critical mass to address key translational challenges and provide new tools, protocols and resources with broad applicability that can be utilised by other UK research groups in academia and industry. In addition, five Disease/Systems focused research programmes have been funded, which that link to or exploit aspects of the science being progressed through the Hubs.

About the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform (UKRMP) Niche Hub

The UKRMP Engineering and Exploiting the Stem Cell Niche Hub is one of five research hubs funded by a grant from the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform, which receives funding from the MRC, BBSRC and EPSRC and is led by the University of Edinburgh. Niche Hub research is focused on understanding the signals to stimulate cartilage, liver, and neural tissue repair and on developing tools and technologies for real-time analysis of the regenerating tissue. The Niche Hub is composed of 8 institutional members (Universities of Edinburgh, Liverpool, Cambridge, Imperial College, Keele, King’s College, Manchester and Strathclyde) with 21 principal investigators (PIs) and 10 Post-Doctoral Research Assistants. The focus of the Niche Hub is to exploit therapeutically our understanding of the biology of stem cell niches. The Niche Hub uses this knowledge to optimise the growth and differentiation of stem cells and improve organ regeneration through endogenous repair and cell transplantation.

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