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10 major pharmas unite in 'pioneering' stem cell effort

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Roche ($RHHBY) has taken a lead role in rallying 9 other large drugmakers and additional stakeholders to build a major collection of 1,500 induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell lines for use in early testing of drugs against a range of neurological ailments as well as diabetes. 

Oxford University will manage the project, dubbed StemBANCC, with a €55.6 million ($72.7 million) budget from industry collaborators and other sources. This is one of the biggest endeavors for Europe's Innovative Medicines Initiative and recognizes the big potential of iPS cells to offer unprecedented human disease models for testing new therapies. And it's another case where pharma outfits--a total of 10 in this instance, along with 23 academic centers--have found ways to team up in the face of daunting drug-development costs and timelines.

iPS cells have taken the scientific world by storm in recent years, and investigators John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka took home a Nobel Prize this year for their pioneering roles in advancing the science. The technology provides a way to reprogram, say, human adult skin cells into virtually any kind of cell. With simulated human disease environments made from iPS cells, pharma groups can test compounds before clinical trials without relying solely on animal models to provide enough assurance to move ahead with studies in humans.

"This is a pioneering effort," said Zameel Cader, a neurologist at Oxford and one of StemBANCC's leaders, as quoted by Bloomberg. "We want to be a flagship project within Europe."

On top of screening compounds, Roche says, the iPS cell lines could be used to pinpoint biomarkers and new treatment targets to combat disease. Plans call for researchers to tap the stem cells to study treatments for pain, migraine, autism, schizophrenia, dementias (think Alzheimer's), and diabetes.

These disorders pose some of the trickiest targets in the drug business, and it's no surprise to see 9 other pharma outfits joining Roche. As Bloomberg noted, those groups include Pfizer ($PFE), Sanofi ($SNY), Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), Eli Lilly ($LLY), Merck KGaA, Novo Nordisk ($NVO), Abbott Labs ($ABT), Boehringer Ingelheim and Orion (which is the smallest of the bunch).

- here's IMI's release
- see Roche's press statement
- and Bloomberg's article

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