SCIENTISTS in Edinburgh have created the world's first clutch of nerve stem cells in what could prove to be a major breakthrough in the race to treat diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
The cells were created in Edinburgh by the Institute for Stem Cell Research and the University of Milan.
A team led by Professor Austin Smith developed the cells at the Edinburgh University-based institution.
It is a breakthrough because it is the first time that scientists have been able to grow and sustain pure brain cells.
Until now, scientists had not been able to sustain the ability of neural stem cells to produce copies of themselves when grown in a dish. By changing the growth conditions for the cells, the Edinburgh and Milan labs have for the first time established pure stem cell divisions.
Researcher Steven Pollard said: "The purity of the cells, and the fact that they do not make tumours, means they should be valuable for studying the potential of transplantation to repair damage."
The long-term aim of the research is that the cells will be used to build replacement neural tissue for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's sufferers.
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, irreversible brain disorder with no known cause or cure, and Parkinson's a disorder of the nervous system.
The most likely immediate use for the artificially-created cells is to test out the effectiveness of new drugs.
The scientists also hope that the cells will eventually help them to grow replacement brain tissue.
The new technology could also lessen the need for animal testing.
Stem Cell Sciences plc (SCS) is the Edinburgh-based stem cell company which gained the licence to the new technology to derive and grow neural stem cells.
Chief executive officer Dr Peter Mountford said: "Being able to grow pure brain cells is an exciting prospect for the company.
"SCS sees new business opportunities in both cell-based drug discovery and cell-based therapies for neurological disorders."
The company's chief science officer, Dr Tim Allsopp, added: "The remarkable stability and purity of the cells is something unique in the field of tissue stem cells and a great step forward.
"We have already had a number of approaches from pharmaceutical companies interested in using these cells to test and develop new drugs, and are looking forward to working with them to further develop and licence the technology."
Stem cells are "master" cells that can become many kinds of tissue, while nerve stem cells are those which help build the brain and central nervous system.
Worldwide research has been carried out on stem cells taken from adult tissue since the 1960's.
South Korean scientists stunned the medical world when they cloned 30 human embryos and developed them over several days last year.
Previous attempts at creating the nerve cells have produced contaminated samples that have not been scientifically useful.
And the breakthrough comes three months after scientists at Newcastle University announced they had successfully produced a cloned embryo using donated eggs and genetic material from stem cells.
It was the first time a human cloned embryo had been created in Britain.
Campaigners, including pro-life groups, have branded the research as "profoundly unethical" in the past.
The creation of cloned babies is banned in the UK, but therapeutic cloning has been legal since 2002.