The Project

MERLIN is a four-year project (2014-2018) funded under the EU Framework 7 Programme in the Health Theme. The project will look at developing stem cell-based therapies for liver disease.

Liver Disease – Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC)

There are many types of liver disease, ranging from hepatitis to cirrhosis. MERLIN will focus specifically on Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC). In patients with PSC, the bile ducts inside and outside the liver become inflamed and scarred. Scarring of the bile ducts causes a build-up of bile, which then results in tissue damage throughout the liver. The cause of PSC is not known and at present, there is no specific treatment for the disease.

You can learn more about PSC here.

Stem Cells

Stems cells are unspecialized cells that can develop into many types of tissue- or organ-specific cells, depending on the body’s needs. Regenerative medicine uses stem cells to regenerate tissue or organs damaged by disease. Stem cells can be obtained from a number of sources  – MERLIN will use stem cells isolated from adult bone marrow, called Mesenchymal Stromal Cells (MSCs).

Stem cell-based therapies show promise across a range of diseases. However, there is still a good deal of variation in stem cell research results, and mainstream therapies are few. In order to unlock the full potential of stem cells, it is necessary to manufacture highly pure cell populations, control how they grow (proliferate) and control what type of cell they become (differentiate).

What will MERLIN Do?

MERLIN will advance the state-of-the-art in stem cell therapy by delivering a new “second generation” MSC platform technology which delivers high purity MSCs for use in therapeutic applications. While MERLIN will use the cells to treat PSC, these second-generation cells could be used for a wide range of diseases, such as diabetes, acute lung injury, transplant medicine, etc.

MERLIN will focus on pre-clinical and clinical studies to look specifically at the use of MSCs as a therapy for Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC). We will develop novel biomarkers to determine the best growth conditions for manufacturing stem cells and so prepare high purity MSCs for use as therapies. We will also develop new strategies to prevent MSCs being cleared from the body of patients by the immune system, measure their distribution in the liver and look at how they proliferate and differentiate in pre-clinical models, before carrying out a clinical trial in human patients.

While MERLIN is looking at a stem cell-based therapy for PSC, a key part of the project will look at the molecular mechanisms of MSC efficacy in inflammatory diseases. The results from these mechanistic studies will have implications in other diseases where inflammation plays a role.