Birmingham is preparing to become one of the leading research centres in the world with a pioneering new £15 million human tissue bank.
The Human Biomaterials Resource Centre is being built at the old Rose Garden site at University of Birmingham to put it at the forefront of international stem cell and cancer research.
It will be the first licensed human tissue bank in the region when it opens next summer.
Dr Jane Steele, the centre’s director, said along with housing some of the rarest tissue collections, there will also be a gene therapy pharmacy plus ‘hatchery’ space for biomedical businesses to work on commercial ideas.
“There will be a huge variety of tissue from every part of the body which will help in cancer research, diabetes, obesity, renal diseases and cardiovascular conditions,” said Dr Steele, a cancer researcher for more than 20 years. “The focus is on research but it is very translational into direct help for patients as it will be a better tool to develop new drugs.
“There has been new legislation in the past few years making it increasingly difficult to do research using human tissue, but this centre will make it much easier to access tissue and maintain the quality of samples. Research should go up because we are centralising the tissue, so it is much more efficient.”
The university is working closely with regional hospitals including nearby Queen Elizabeth, asking patients if samples of cancerous and diseased tissue removed during operations can be donated to the tissue bank.
“If someone goes into hospital with colorectal cancer and has the tumour removed in surgery, it goes to the pathologist to check that it has all been removed and then into waste, but we are requesting that it goes to the tissue bank instead,” added Dr Steele.
“We have a huge advantage in the West Midlands because large specialised hospitals are based here and there is a major ethnic population, which is such a resource. We are aspiring to collect rare collections of tissue so we can make a difference.
“Rare conditions like metabolic disorders, we see a lot of in the region. While some types of tissue are difficult to collect because of the nature and rarity of the disease like pancreatic cancer because patients often die from it before tissue is collected.”
Laboratories will be next to a cell bank containing 20 freezers. Each can hold 39,000 samples of test tubes.
The main driver for scientists will be to identify biomarkers in diseased tissue that shed light on how to diagnose a disease.
Prof Paul Stewart, director of research and knowledge transfer, said the centre had a total funding of between £12 and £15 million with £2.5 million from Advantage West Midlands through the Birmingham Science City programme, plus support from the Department of Health and Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council.
“There is £1 million being spent alone on the gene therapy facility,” said Prof Stewart. “Some viral particles are synthesised in-house and will be infected into cells to test out drug therapies. Our biggest strength will be cancers and we are having to turn down requests because we don’t have the facilities.”
Dr Steele is busy making final preparations and explains that a website is being set up so researchers around the world can view samples and work at the centre, licensed by the Human Tissue Authority.
“We are looking at doing a lot of international collaborations,” she added. “Research is a slog but when you make a breakthrough, you are on a high for months.’’