Wellington film-making couple Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have donated $500,000 (US$311,000) to the University of California's research programme on human embryonic stem cells.

"We have lost close friends and relatives to cancer and Parkinson's disease, and the level of personal suffering inflicted on patients and their families by these diseases is horrific," Jackson said today.

"Stem cell therapy has the potential to treat a multitude of diseases and illnesses, which up until now have been labelled 'incurable'."

"It has the capacity to exponentially improve the quality of life for those who currently suffer from spinal cord injury, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and many other debilitating medical conditions.

"Continuing advances in stem cell medicine will change all of our lives for the better," he said in a statement issued by the university.

The couple's money will be used by neurobiologist Hans Keirstead to create two scholarships for students who will specialise in stemcell work.

Some types of stem cells can become any of the more than 200 cells in the human body. But the US Government has opposed the use stem cells from human embryos, which some religious groups have argued is morally equivalent to abortion, and few American laboratories work with human embryonic stem cells.

The university said this meant young researchers in the US had few choices for their education and postdoctoral research, and last month Dr Keirstead announced that he would generate up to five new human embryonic stem cell lines to be used for research.

"The few labs that do work with these cells have to turn down scores of students due to the scarcity of funding, which is having a devastating effect on the future of stem cell research," said Dr Keirstead. "Peter and Fran's donation helps to address this crucial need."

Dr Keirstead studies whether stem cells can restore some movement in paralysed rodents, shedding light on possible treatments for people with spinal cord-related disabilities. In 2005, he used a treatment derived from human embryonic stem cells to improve mobility in rats with spinal cord injuries.

The donation from Jackson and Walsh will establish the Bill and Joan Jackson Scholars Fund, named after Jackson's parents, and support the stem cell research of two students for four years each.

The couple each won three Oscars for their work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy and are currently adapting Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones.