SYDNEY, Australia - Australian investors have combined with the government of Singapore to invest A$17 million (US$9.8 million) in developing a newly discovered technique for growing nerve cells from human embryonic stem cells.

ES Cell International Pte Ltd. (ESI) said the money will be spent on further research into the breakthrough at three institutions - the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development at Monash University in Melbourne, the National University of Singapore and the Hadasit Medical Organization in Israel.

ESI General Manager Robert Klupacs said all three organizations had contributed to the discovery, announced in April by Alan Trounson of Monash University, of a technique for growing nerve cells from human embryonic stem cells.

The funds would allow all three institutions to expedite their research and use other groups, including contract researchers in the U.S.

Klupacs, now based in Melbourne, also said the company is still a long way from having any product in clinical trials, but he expected ESI to be producing and selling standardized cell cultures and materials to other research groups within about 18 months. By that time he also expects the company to be based in Singapore.

In about three years he expects ESI to be working with lead compounds, he said.

Media material produced by ESI states that the breakthrough has significant potential for treatment of degenerative conditions such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's diseases. It also points to the possibility of being able to manufacture organs for transplantation from the cells of patients and to the treatment of spinal injuries.

In the "more immediate future" the stem cell breakthrough may be used to manufacture human tissue to test new medicines, ESI said.

The two main investors in ESI are ES Cell Australia Pty Ltd. and Life Sciences Investment Pte Ltd. ES Cell Australia is a private venture capital company that specializes in the biotechnology sector and was formed by seven wealthy investors. Life Sciences Investment is one of a string of investment companies backed by the Singapore government.

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