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Pfizer makes major stem cell investment

Published on 19/11/08 at 10:18am

Pfizer has launched a global stem cell research unit to develop a new generation of medicines.

The research unit, to be known as Pfizer Regenerative Medicine, will have sites in the biotech hubs of Cambridge, UK and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The unit will investigate the use of stem cells to prevent disability, repair failing organs and treat degenerative diseases, ultimately working towards developing new medicinal products.

Pfizer's head of worldwide research Rod MacKenzie said: "Pfizer Regenerative Medicine represents a great opportunity to focus world-class research in a field that holds considerable promise for biomedical science and for the treatment of many debilitating conditions such as diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders."

Pfizer Regenerative Medicine will operate as one of the company's new small, independent research units with the aim of fostering a biotech-like culture and environment.

It will be led by chief scientific officer Ruth McKernan, who said: "While there is still a lot to understand about how stem cells can be used therapeutically, we believe it is one of the most promising areas of scientific research."

The UK side of the unit will predominantly focus on age-related and degenerative disorders with particular interest in common cellular mechanisms and disorders of the central and peripheral nervous system.

Pfizer Regenerative Medicine has 60 UK vacancies to fill over the next two years in areas like in vivo stem cell research and cell and molecular biology.

The US arm of Pfizer Regenerative Medicine, where there are 20 positions to be filled, will concentrate on using stem cells to develop therapies for cardiac disorders and cancer.

The only other pharmaceutical company to have so far made a substantial commitment to stem cell science is GlaxoSmithKline. Earlier this year it signed a $25 million (£16.7 million), five-year agreement with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute covering research towards new therapies for conditions such as cancer and diabetes.

Government support

Stem cell research remains ethically controversial, but Pfizer's investment is a mark of confidence in an area that has seen some improvements in the regulatory landscape.

In the US, president-elect Barack Obama recently committed to reversing a ban on government funding of embryonic stem-cell research.

In the UK, prime minister Gordon Brown has long aimed to position the country as a world-class location for medical research, including stem cell work and earlier this year MPs passed a Bill allowing 'hybrid' human/animal embryo research.

Characterised by detractors as 'Frankenstein science', such research uses cells from specially-created hybrids embryos to discover more about how embryonic stem cells can become specific cells.

Pfizer's stem cell research policy acknowledges the sensitive issues raised by the research, and says it supports proper ethical safeguards that take into account "the moral issues and public sensitivities".

The company says collaborations with leading academic, biotech and pharmaceutical partners would be vital to the venture, and details of the first alliances are expected in the coming weeks.

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