A collective of academic and industry players are planning to create 1,500 induced pluripotent stem cell lines from 500 patients to push forward drug discovery in areas such as diabetes, dementia and pain.

The StemBANCC project, managed by the University of Oxford , UK, and including 10 pharma companies and 23 academic institutions, is backed by €26 million from the European Union’s Innovative Medicines Initiative and €21 million of ‘in-kind’ contributions from the European pharmaceutical industry. Over five years it will derive three induced pluripotent stem cell lines from skin and blood samples taken from 500 patients that it hopes to enroll in the project. It will make these cells available to other researchers, and use them within the project to develop new tools for drug development.

Many researchers are already using stem cell lines in drug development, and to further understanding of often-complex diseases. Advocates say that human stem cells lines can provide better ways of screening potential drug molecules than traditional models, such as animals or immortalized cell lines. They are also used in toxicology testing, where they allow scientists to directly test potential drugs on, for example, liver cells or neurons (see: Stem cells take root in drug development).

Zameel Cader, a neurologist at the University of Oxford and lead academic on the StemBANCC project, says that the crucial part of this new initiative is that these cells will be from patients who actually have the diseases in question, as well as others who show specific adverse reactions to drugs, and healthy ‘control’ individuals.

“We’re specifically trying to develop a panel of lines across a range of diseases that are important to address,” says Cader. “There isn’t another institution that’s doing this at the same scale across the same range of diseases.”

If these stem cell tools can make drug development more efficient it could even arrest the decline of industry funding in neurological conditions, where drug development has proven especially expensive and tricky.

The real test will be in getting the stem cells produced by StemBANCC into the hands of researchers in a way that actually does this. “In some ways the generation of the biobank is the easy part … relatively speaking,” Cader told journalists in London today.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on December 5, 2012.