The world's first stem cell bank has been officially opened in the UK.
Stem cells could lead to many new treatments
The centre, in Hertfordshire, contains two stem cell lines developed by teams at King's College London and the Centre for Life in Newcastle.
Stem cells offer hope of new ways to repair and replace diseased and damaged body tissues.
While scientists support the research, opponents say it is unethical and unnecessary to use cells from embryos in this way.
However, even proponents admit that a huge amount of research is needed to understand exactly how stem cells work and how their potential can be harnessed for treatments for conditions such as diabetes, cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Stem cells are the body's master cells, with the potential to become many different types of tissue.
The bank is funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
Run by the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC), it will be responsible for storing, characterising and supplying ethically approved, quality controlled stem cell lines for research and ultimately for treatment.
The cell lines are derived from stem cells which continue to multiply and reproduce themselves indefinitely.
The bank will hold stem cell lines derived originally from embryonic, foetal and adult tissues.
Applications to deposit stem cell lines in the bank or to access banked stem cell lines must be reviewed and authorised by a high level Steering Committee.
Health Minister Lord Warner said: "This Bank is the first of its kind in the world and confirms the UK's position as a leader in stem cell research.
"This potentially revolutionary research could benefit thousands of patients whose lives are blighted by devastating diseases such as Parkinson's, stroke and Alzheimer's."
Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the MRC, said stem cell research offered real promise for the treatment of currently incurable diseases.
He said: "The bank will ensure that researchers can explore the enormous potential of this exciting science for the future benefit of patients."
Professor Julia Goodfellow, BBSRC chief executive, said: "Stem cell therapy will remain a dream unless we can understand and control the processes that switch these cells into specialised types such as brain or pancreas cells.
"The bank will help us to achieve this by providing isolated and well-characterised cells for research."
Anti-abortion groups have voiced opposition to the bank, arguing the extraction of stem cells from human embryos is unethical.
Patrick Cusworth, of the charity Life, said: "The practice of creating human embryos for destructive research is immoral for two reasons.
"First, it reduces human life to little more than a pharmaceutical product. Secondly, it holds out false hopes of cures for sufferers of dehabilitating conditions.
"The irony is that there is a better alternative to embryonic stem cells.
"Experiments using adult stem cells, that is, stem cells taken from various sources in the patient's own body, and cells taken from discarded umbilical cords, have already proved remarkably effective."
A spokesman for the ProLife Party said it was wrong to produce and market stem cells obtained through "the sacrifice of early human life".
"The smug glee of UK science and the government as it officially opens its pioneer stem cell bank, is not shared by the worldwide pro-life movement or anybody who believes that medical cures may never be advanced if their development depends on unethical practice.
"Taking one human life in this way to save another is not morally licit."