A national treasure in three temporary trailers
The UK Stem Cell Bank (SCB) is a relatively recent addition to the imposing campus of the National Institute of Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC), located north of London. Since 1975, the NIBSC has been home to laboratories that ensure the quality of vaccines and other health-related biological references used by researchers and clinics. Visitors must pose for a security photo outside the main entrance before penetrating the barbed wire fence that rings the red brick complex and its parking lot.
“Our visitors are always less impressed when they see how small our offices actually are,” says Lesley Young, the bank's chief supervising biologist, as she leads the way up a flight of stairs and into one of three temporary trailers which jointly house the SCB.
The UK Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council established the SCB in 2003 to provide quality control for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research in Britain. Other cell banks, both public and private, existed already, but hESCs have proven particularly vexing for researchers to keep track of.
“Sometimes we've had people complain that we sent them cells that weren't viable,” says SCB director Glyn Stacey, “and then we found they didn't get them from us.” The scientific and technical staff at the bank have developed enough experience with hESC culturing that they often provide advice and training to newcomers to stem cell research. Young often accompanies shipments to train researchers in the methods used at the SCB.
Young shares an office with a handful of colleagues and a brand-new video screen–equipped microscope. One window of the office trailer reveals the doors of three sterile mini-laboratories, or 'clean rooms' in the attached trailer, and the other provides a glimpse through some trees towards the new building the bank will occupy sometime next year, when construction is complete. The newer facility should have five clean rooms and additional, larger freezers to store banked lines, plus an off-site location, just in case samples at the main facility are destroyed.
Expansion in space and staff should help the bank keep up with demand, along with planned staff hiring. A website upgrade is also in the works, which the bank has told users should trim wait times for steering committee decisions from weeks to days in some cases.
Still, even with greater technical capacity, the bank plans to grow judiciously. “We're not a stamp collection. We're not trying to get everything,” says Stacey.
What the bank can do to speed things up for researchers, Stacey says, is improve coordination with its international counterparts. “There's every sign that's going to happen through the ISCF [International Stem Cell Foundation],” he says. New nonbinding guidelines, to appear in a forthcoming issue of Stem Cells Reviews and Reports, should, he says, help make ICSF members behave “a little like the World Health Organization for stem cells”.
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Laursen, L. A bank in England for stem cells. Nat Rep Stem Cells (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/stemcells.2009.123