Three of the biggest players in the pharmaceutical industry have joined up with the UK government in a venture that will involve the development of stem cell technology that will be used for safety testing of investigational compounds.

AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and Roche have each committed an initial £100,000 towards setting up an independent, not-for-profit company, called Stem Cells For Safer Medicines, or SC4SM, to provide guidance and funding for stem cell research in the UK. The UK’s Department of Health is to provide £750,000 for the project, which is also supported by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the Scottish government, the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Setting up this consortium represents the first major foray by big pharma into this somewhat controversial area which has principally been the domain for biotechnology firms and academia and is the first public-private partnership on human embryonic stem cells.

The first phase of the five-year, £10 million programme will focus on producing hepatocytes, or liver cells, and Ian Cotgreave, head of molecular toxicity for AstraZeneca, noted that the liver is a key organ for toxicity. As such, liver toxicity is one of the main causes of the failure of drugs as was recently highlighted by the withdrawal of the UK major’s blood clot preventer Exanta (ximelegatran).

Two biotechnology firms with research laboratories in Dundee, Scotland –CXR Biosciences and Cellartis – are working on hepatocytes for toxicity and are expected to be involved in the project, which then plans to target cardiomyocytes, or heart cells. SC4SM, which is hoping that other pharmaceutical companies will come on board, stressed that it will not specifically investigate the therapeutic use of stem cells, though it will work with researchers who are doing so.

Dr Philip Wright, ABPI director of science & technology and chief executive of SC4SM, said that "this partnership takes advantage of the UK’s position in this emerging science, brings together stem cell and medicine safety scientists, and also facilitates participation from companies in Europe and the rest of the world. If successful, it will have a real impact on improving safety in clinical studies and ultimately for patients.”

The UK government's science minister Ian Pearson said the new initiative is a "core part” of its 10-year strategy for stem cell research in the country and added that “this collaboration between government and pharmaceutical companies is an excellent example not only of our commitment to stem cell research but also our commitment to work in partnership with industry to speed the development of safer medicines”.