George Freeman outlines the Government’s support for stem cell transplantation research

15th September 2015

George Freeman outlines the Government’s investment in stem cell transplantation research and highlights the opening of the new £3 million blood and transplant research unit in Bristol in particular.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences (George Freeman): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this Adjournment debate on this crucial topic. I also thank Members from across the House—the hon. Members for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon)—for staying late to raise and support this important issue. Let me take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Anthony Nolan trust, and to the work of the many volunteers who support its work around the country and the partnership it has established with the NHS and with the National Institute for Health Research. I have been invited by them twice to visit the facilities and I am very keen to do that. I want to put on the record that the only reason those two visits had to be rearranged was the intrusion of the general election, and I look forward to visiting as soon as I can.
 
As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate has made clear, stem cell transplantation is a life-saving treatment that plays a key role in the treatment of leukaemia and some other diseases. Almost 4,000 patients a year receive this type of treatment. Many patients are fortunate to have a closely related family member who can donate stem cells, but the treatment of more than 1,000 patients depends on stem cells from a suitable unrelated donor. The Department of Health has invested significantly in this area and since 2011 will have provided a total of £19 million in funding to establish and staff a series of donor centres around the country. Earlier in the year, I was delighted to announce the latest £3 million funding, and just this week we have seen the formal opening of the £3 million blood and transplant research unit down in Bristol, where red blood cells are being manufactured from stem cells. It is based in Filton and is the world’s largest blood bank. It is one of four new NIHR-funded blood and transplant units—part of the £15 million programme the NIHR is putting in place. The latest analysis by the UK stem cell strategy oversight committee is that this funding has directly led to approximately 130 additional patients each receiving a transplant.
 
That great achievement relies on not only the dedicated clinical teams working in hospitals across the UK, but the effective partnership between NHS Blood and Transplant and the charity Anthony Nolan. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Professor Charlie Craddock and the work that he and all those involved in the trials acceleration programme are doing. They are, in many ways, trailblazers for the wider programme of accelerated access that I am leading through the accelerated access review. The Institute of Translational Medicine in Birmingham is breaking new ground on how we can take science into NHS practice.
 
The Government have also directly funded the creation of a unified registry—the Anthony Nolan and NHS stem cell registry—that ties together the different databases across the UK, making searching for a suitable donor quicker and easier. The number of registered donors continues to grow, and I am delighted that last year the registry passed the 1 million mark.
 
As hon. Members have highlighted, this is not just about the quantity; it is also about the quality. In response to the recommendations from the oversight committee, the funding from the Department of Health has specifically been used to create a panel of young male donors, who are much more likely to be able to donate. That panel now exceeds 70,000 and continues to grow. The data clearly show that that has been an effective strategy and that those young men are several times more likely to be asked to donate than others on the registry.
 
Finding a suitable donor is not the same for all patients. There is a global shortage of donors for patients from minority groups and those with diverse origins. To address that, the Government supported the targeted recruitment of donors from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, which has now increased the chance of a patient finding a suitable well-matched donor from only 40% in 2010 to 60% today. It should be noted that our work with minority communities is supported by a number of partners in the charitable sector, such as the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust, and more widely the Department continues to work with NBTA—the National BAME Transplant Alliance—which co-ordinates the work of those organisations on all forms of donation, including bone marrow.
 
It is an unfortunate fact that for many patients, finding a suitably matched donor will remain very difficult if not impossible, and in those situations umbilical cord blood might offer an alternative source of stem cells. Cells isolated from the umbilical cord are much more tolerant of slight mismatches and can be just as clinically effective as adult bone marrow and, unsurprisingly, BAME patients are almost six times more likely than Caucasian patients to receive stem cells from the umbilical cord. That is why funding from the Department has supported the targeted collection of high-quality cord blood samples. Both NHS Blood and Transplant and Anthony Nolan run dedicated units to collect cord blood and they have a specific target of collecting 40% of samples from BAME parents. The NHS cord blood bank now has more than 12,000 high-quality samples and, as a consequence, many more patients are now receiving cord blood samples obtained in the UK, making transplantation quicker and easier.
 
We continue to explore how transplantation can be improved, including clinical outcomes. I am aware that the NIHR Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure, NOCRI, has been in discussion with the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and other stakeholders to explore how it might be possible further to build on the NIHR national clinical research networks. The NIHR welcomes applications on any aspect of research related to stem cell transplantation and those applications are subject in the normal way to peer review and judged on the basis of scientific quality and the importance of the subject to patients and the healthcare service. The collection of clinical outcome data, which has been mentioned by a number of colleagues, remains an important issue within stem cell transplantation, which is why some of this year’s stem cell improvement funding of £3 million has been earmarked specifically to support data collection. That is an issue that the hon. Member for Torfaen has highlighted.
 
Such initiatives complement at every level the broader work we are doing to support the new life science landscape in which genomics and informatics drive better targeted treatments. When we are thinking of the future of stem cell transplantation in the UK, it is important to see it as part of a much wider strategy for the development of regenerative medicine. When we identified regenerative medicine as one of the eight great technologies in 2012 in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, it was largely on the basis of its theoretical potential to develop into a significant sector, but in the past few years we have seen an explosion of activity in this field, justifying that investment. Much of the work is, of course, for small and medium-sized enterprises.
 
We have not only established through the work of Innovate UK the Cell Therapy Catapult but have provided £55 million of funding to build the cell therapy manufacturing centre in Stevenage. That centre will enable UK and global companies that are looking to scale up to phase 3 manufacturing, solving a key barrier identified in the translation of research into commercially viable products. When that facility opens in 2017, it alone will support the creation of up to 150 new jobs on the Stevenage campus.
 
The creation of such centres of excellence attracts further inward investment and current estimates are that the sector will grow within the next 10 years to be worth £1.2 billion here in the UK. The Government have worked to co-ordinate funding across the regenerative medicine sector through initiatives such as the UK regenerative medicine platform, driven by Innovate UK. The unique role played by NHSBT is notable in this respect. It already has experience in cell processing, storage and delivery of living cell-based therapies from its work with blood supply and it will have a key role in the development of the logistics systems to respond to the specific requirements for regenerative medicine. In the coming years, the number of cell therapies and their clinical impact will expand far beyond their current use in transplantation, but will none the less rely on this key foundation. NHSBT is more than just a specialist logistics organisation; it has the ambition and potential to play an important role in the development and adoption of a wide range of novel therapies. It has already set in place a number of regenerative medicine projects, working in partnership with universities and the commercial sector.
 
Preparing the NHS for the novel regenerative therapies was a key aim of the regenerative medicine expert group, and am I pleased to say that the excellent report published in March this year contained a number of clear recommendations. To ensure that those recommendations are acted upon, I have asked the chief executive officers of the key delivery organisations to take them forward. I look forward to receiving their update in due course.
 
My hon. Friend asked whether I would be prepared to meet the all-party group on stem cell transplantation. I would be delighted to meet the group. In fact, I want to take this opportunity to announce that, in order to facilitate the process of submitting applications to the National Institute for Health Research, I am in the process of organising an NIHR parliamentary moment—I hope that it will become a parliamentary day—at which that great institution, which spends £1 billion a year on front-line clinical research at the heart of the NHS, can come to Parliament and set out for colleagues across the House the different programmes that we are running in the different disease areas and how applications can be made. I hope that the all-party group, along with the Anthony Nolan trust and clinicians such as Charlie Craddock, will play a role in making applications to the NIHR.
 
I echo my hon. Friend’s call for donor volunteers to come forward. I congratulate those, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who have already led the way by donating. The truth is that progress in biomedical science, cell therapy, genomics, informatics and the development of autologous stem cells—stem cells that do not require donation—is moving at an incredible pace. I recently visited the Berlin Institute for stem cell therapy, and the extraordinary advances across Europe are bringing within our range a whole new world of regenerative medicines based on autologous, manufactured stem cells that do not require donation. There is a whole new class of therapeutics, with the T cell and the immunotherapy drugs, which we hope will mean that in due course we can treat some of these cancers without that therapy being necessary. For now, however, it is our line of last resort, so it is crucial that we support that work and encourage and support donors to come forward.
 
Mr Burrowes: I welcome the Minister’s call for donors. I want to return to the point about trying to get the life sciences industry more involved. The Minister mentioned that it was largely SME-based. Although there has been public sector and charity involvement in the early stage of development, industry investment has been moderate. What does he put that down to, and how can we try to encourage the bigger life sciences industry to get involved?
 
George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes a good point. As in some other sectors, such as malaria, where the commercial models are not as well developed or as clear, there is a role for the Government, which is why we have set up the strategy and the partnerships. By de-risking and supporting the deep science in the early stages and bringing forward these partnerships of support, we hope to make it a sector in which more and more companies are beginning to see a return, and then they will start to invest their own money. All the indications are that that is beginning to happen here in the UK.
 
Mary Glindon: Will the Minister therefore ensure that the Government will continue to support the science budget in the years ahead?
 
George Freeman: Much as I would like to, I cannot take on the role of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and announce the results of the autumn statement. I hope that the hon. Lady will see that our commitment to and support for the sector is clear. I am confident that we will see a continuation of that support for science in the autumn statement. We all know that funding is tight. The key is to demonstrate clinical impact and partnerships of support with companies.
 
I think that this is a great success story. I pay tribute once again to the Anthony Nolan trust, whose partnership with the NHS is genuinely changing outcomes for patients.
 

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