A unique set of laboratories that will allow researchers to create new types of medicines made from human cells and tissues has opened at the Royal Free Hospital.

The cell manufacturing labs will allow scientists at the hospital to create or modify cells which can be used to treat a range of conditions, including lung cancer, haemophilia and macular degeneration. The  labs, which cost £2.1 million, will also be used to create simple transplant organs, like tracheas (windpipes), from stem cells.

These medicines, known as advance therapy medicinal products (ATMPs), can only be created in specialist labs. The air inside the 10 labs operates under positive pressure, which means the flow of air travels outwards, rather than into the labs. It means only filtered air, which is much cleaner than ordinary air, can enter the labs.

When staff are working in the labs all the air is replaced with freshly filtered air every 60 seconds and laboratory staff are required to wear protective clothing in order to ensure the labs remain clean.

Mark Lowdell, the Royal Free London’s director of cellular therapy and biobanking, said: “In ordinary air there are half a million microbes per cubic metre. Inside the labs there are fewer than 100 microbes per cubic metre of air. So, that’s a huge difference.

“The laboratory teams were closely involved in the design process so the suite works exactly how we need it to work. Although there are other labs in the UK which are similar, these are the first which have been purpose designed to produce cells, tissues and gene-modified cells for human use in one place. The Royal Free London’s trust board showed tremendous vision in making this capital investment”. 

“It’s really exciting to be working at these new labs. Patients at the Royal Free London will have access to the latest treatments and it means the trust can continue to lead the way in developing these new medicines with our academic colleagues across UCL Partners.”

Over the next three years scientists working at the cell manufacturing labs will produce 100 billion stem cells, which will be used in a clinical trial for a new lung cancer treatment. The stem cells are adapted so that they are able to find and kill lung cancer cells. It is hoped this treatment and other ATMPs will ultimately mean cancer patients will not need to be treated with high doses of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, which can both have harmful side effects. 

Dr Lowdell’s team is working with researchers to create patient-specific stem cells from their own normal cells. These can then be reprogrammed so they can be used to treat macular degeneration. The team is also working with partners from UCL and Great Ormond Street, to create new larynxes (voice boxes) or tracheas from stem cells for patients who have lost theirs through cancer or congenital deformity.