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Lab-grown organs, HIV vaccines and cures for cancer: Royal Free open day shows off pioneering research

18:00 03 July 2014

Professor Alex Seifalian, Professor Hans Stauss and Professor Lucy Walker from the Institute of Immunology and Transplantation at the Royal Free Hospital show off an ear created in their labs. Picture: Polly Hancock

Professor Alex Seifalian, Professor Hans Stauss and Professor Lucy Walker from the Institute of Immunology and Transplantation at the Royal Free Hospital show off an ear created in their labs. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Ground-breaking research into developing lab-grown organs, cures for cancer and a vaccine for HIV were shown off at a £54million research centre at the Royal Free on Friday – as it celebrated its first anniversary since being opened by Prince Andrew.

The UCL Institute for Immunology and Transplantation, based at the hospital in Pond Street, put on a series of public talks and interactive displays as it continues towards its goal of 
becoming Europe’s leading immunology research hub.

The institute was opened in June last year and is now in the early stages of beginning its next phase – a £42m building it hopes will be constructed on the car park site next to Hampstead Green.

Prof Hans Stauss, director of the institute, said: “There is a huge amount of work being carried out at the institute which we hope will make a difference to patients with a wide variety of illnesses. The next phase will allow us the space to truly develop a multi-disciplinary team – expanding our number of researchers from 40 to 200.”

Scientists already based at the institute have produced a number of world-firsts as a result of their research. This includes lab-built tear ducts, 3D printed ears and noses and tailor-built coronary arteries.

One area gaining worldwide attention has been the research on nanotechnology and tissue engineering.

The team has worked on fluorescent dyes that can be injected into the blood to show cancerous growths, magnetic nanoparticles that can enter cancer cells and destroy them when activated and even 3D printed scaffolds of replacement organs. Prof Alexander Seifalian, leading the team, made world headlines in 2011 after building the first synthetic windpipe combined with stem cells.

It saved the life of a 36-year-old Icelandic patient.

“I remember the surgeon contacting me saying his patient had about 10 days to live,” he said.

“They had looked all over the world for help. So I agreed to build him a trachea and went rushing around art shops in Hampstead, buying clay and creating moulds.

“The transplant was a success and with this procedure, others who suffer from tracheal cancer won’t have to wait for a suitable donor organ.

“I find this work the most exciting part of medicine. Being able to convert a standard CT scan into body parts that fit the patient perfectly – it’s truly ground-breaking.”

Prof Seifalian’s team will be conducting trials with scientists in Mumbai later this year to implant lab-manufactured ears onto human patients and in September they will be conducting the world’s first trial to implant their self-built coronary arteries.

As organs are grown in the labs, next door other researchers are looking to unlock the power of the body’s own immune system to combat illnesses.

Last month the hospital made world headlines after a skin cancer patient given just months to live appeared to have been cured by a drug preventing cancers shielding themselves from the immune system.

Dr Emma Morris, a lead researcher in this field, said: “Medicine is completely different to when I was a medical student 30 years ago.

“It’s very exciting for all of us here. Working together we can get the chance to truly understand how the immune system works.”

And as this team works to unlock cures for cancer, yet another is working to develop immunity against HIV.

Treatments for diabetes, scleroderma, common virus, and kidney and liver disease are all being developed by the multi-disciplinary institute.

As one researcher noted: “With so much great research going on, the next 10 to 20 years will be a great time to be around the Royal Free.”

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