Certain stem cell-based therapies could be available to Irish patients within a couple of years, as part of a new €2.5m research partnership between the Irish Blood Transfusion Service and research centres in Galway, Dublin and Cork.
The project will involve the researching, manufacturing and for the first time transplanting of adult human stem cells for the treatment of arthritis, burns and diabetic foot ulcers.
For decades, blood transfusions have been used as a basic, temporary form of cell therapy.
But time and technology has moved on and now the targeted delivery of cells to injured or diseased tissue is seen as a promising future method of treating a whole variety of illnesses and conditions.
As part of its objective to be involved in research, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) put out a call for ideas for research into cell-based therapies.
The winning proposal came from the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) in NUI Galway, supported by the National Adult Stem Cell Transplant Centre in St James's Hospital and the Centre for Research in Vascular Biology in University College Cork.
The IBTS will provide €2.5m over the next five years to the project.
The objective of the collaboration is to build a network of scientists in Ireland to research, manufacture and transplant new cell-based therapies.
The researchers will use adult stem cells from umbilical chords and bone marrow.
The initial focus will be conditions such as arthritis, where the researchers will try to use stem cells to regenerate arthritic joints.
They will also focus on developing stem cell-based therapies to regrow skin damaged by burns.
The third area of interest will be wounds caused by diabetes, where the scientists will use the stem cells to develop new blood vessels in ischaemic limbs.
The partnership will see a stem cell manufacturing facility developed at NUI Galway and a series of preclinical and clinical trials carried out.
It is hoped in time the project will be able to offer trial cell-based therapies to patients in Ireland, although it is likely to be a couple of years before that will happen.
Dr Ian Franklin, Medical and Scientific Director of the IBTS, said while the universities have the expertise to develop the approaches, the IBTS has the experience and ability to manufacture the therapies and bring them to the patients.
Prof Frank Barry of REMEDI said this project had the potential to provide patients in Ireland with access to new, ground-breaking therapies.