Embryonic stem cells could be a viable and effective alternative for testing drugs for dangerous side effects, according to a leading British researcher.
Christine Mummery, Professor of Developmental Biology at Leiden University Medical Centre in The Netherlands, has predicted that what is currently a small and sparsely funded research area will boom in coming years under US President-elect Barack Obama, who is an ardent supporter of stem cell research.
Mummery said that it typically costs 1 billion dollars and takes 10 years to get a new drug to market. Before any tests or trials take place on patients, millions of chemical compounds are tested on cells in the laboratory, in a bid to detect adverse effects.
For potential drugs to treat heart disease various cell types are used for the preliminary screening - but in the second round of testing, heart cells are necessary. At the moment the only way to do this is using heart cells from animals.
However, Mummery believes that since researchers are able to make unlimited human heart cells from embryonic stem cells, they offer a viable and scientifically exciting alternative.
"Many drugs meant to treat other complaints also have side effects on the heart, sometimes with fatal consequences. There are recent examples of drugs being withdrawn from the market because they caused sudden cardiac death in some patients," she said.
"Regulators now require that drugs be tested for potential effects on the heart before going to market. At present the pharmaceutical industry has no alternative but to do this using heart cells from animals.
"With the research that is now on-going in several parts of the world, including the UK, we believe using human heart cells from human embryonic stem cells can become a good and viable alternative. From a scientific point of view, it makes much more sense to use human stem cells to model human hearts," she added.
Mummery presented her views at the British Pharmacological Society's Winter Meeting in Brighton.