2014

18
Dec 2014
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Saying goodbye to Professor Donald Metcalf

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The world of haematology research is mourning the loss of one of its giants, Prof. Donald Metcalf, who has died at the age of 85.…

The world of haematology research is mourning the loss of one of its giants, Prof. Donald Metcalf, who has died at the age of 85.

A native of New South Wales, Australia, Prof. Metcalf received a Carden Fellowship in cancer research at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in 1954.

Starting from an interest in leukemia, Prof. Metcalf focused his research on blood cell production. Following the findings of Canada’s Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch, who first isolated stem cells in 1961, Prof. Metcalf and his team discovered colony-stimulating factors (CSFs), hormones that regulate white blood cell production.

The discovery of CSFs has had a significant impact on the recovery of cancer patients after chemotherapy. The injection of CSFs can reduce susceptibility to life-threatening infections by increasing the number of blood cells responsible for fighting those infections.

“Over the past 20 years, more than 20 million cancer patients have been treated with CSFs and, as a result, have been given the best possible chance of beating their cancer. There can be no greater legacy for a medical researcher.” according to a tribute by Prof. Douglas HiltonDirector of Walter and Eliza Hall Institute Of Medical Research, and Profs. Warren Alexander and Nicos Nicola, Heads of Institute’s Division of Cancer and Haematology.

Despite many opportunities across the world, Prof. Metcalf spent 60 years as a Carden Fellow at the Institute, even after his official retirement in 1996. He received several Australian and international awards for his work. Among these were the Companion of the Order of Australia (1993), the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research (1993) and the Robert Koch Prize (1998).

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August, Prof. Metcalf, also known as “the father of modern haematology,” performed his last experiment in October and died surrounded by his family on Monday.

 

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16
Dec 2014
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A wish for all Canadians

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By Stacey Johnson, Director of Communications, Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine

There is much joy and celebration in becoming a centenarian.…

CCRM

By Stacey Johnson, Director of Communications, Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine

There is much joy and celebration in becoming a centenarian. This March, my grandmother turns 100. If she had one wish, I know it would be for renewed physical vitality. Her mind is strong, but her body is giving out.

Despite huge progress in research, there won’t be a cure for age-related macular degeneration in time for her to benefit, nor will she be able to replace her electronic pacemaker with one made from stem cells, but she’s excited by the promise of stem cell research, even if it won’t impact her directly.

Now is a time for optimism in the regenerative medicine (RM) field, especially in Canada. In October, the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation announced its national Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan and barely a month later, the Province of Ontario awarded $3.1 million to launch the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine (OIRM).

The regenerative medicine community in Canada is very connected thanks to more than a decade’s worth of targeted encouragement from the federal government – in the form of funding – and efforts by the Canadian Stem Cell Network to break down silos and promote collaboration. With all the key stakeholders working together to develop products and shepherd them through clinical trials to reach patients, the community has research excellence and political will on its side.

The Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), a unique not-for-profit group that is solely focused on developing and commercializing RM technologies, was involved with both of the recent announcements. The goal of the Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan is to produce five to 10 therapies within the next 10 years. The OIRM has been established to translate stem cell research into curative therapies for major degenerative diseases. CCRM is the commercialization partner for both groups and is co-leading OIRM with the Ontario Stem Cell Initiative.

With an aging population and Canadian health care costs – direct and indirect – estimated at $190 billion annually, finding treatments and cures is imperative. The Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, OIRM and CCRM will coordinate efforts to move promising stem cell treatments from the bench to the bedside.

My grandmother is unlikely to see cures in her lifetime, but success is feeling closer every day. And that’s something worth celebrating.

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12
Dec 2014
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3 things you need to know about Dr. Nagy’s discovery

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The news yesterday that Dr. Andras Nagy made an amazing discovery, says three key things about the state of stem cell science in Canada.…

The news yesterday that Dr. Andras Nagy made an amazing discovery, says three key things about the state of stem cell science in Canada.

But first, who is Dr. Nagy and what exactly did he discover?

Nagy Screen Capture

Regular visitors to this website are familiar with Dr. Nagy even if they may not know it. That’s his image (above) in profile on our home page linking to our powerful “We’re not rock stars” video.

Dr. Nagy, a senior scientist at Mount Sinai’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute previously made international headlines when he discovered a non-viral way to create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) cells from adult stem cells, reducing the possibility of the process introducing genetic mutations. This was a significant leap forward from the original 2006 discovery that earned Japan’s Dr. Shinya Yamanaka the Nobel Prize.  IPS cells have the same properties as embryonic stem cells: they can self-renew and can differentiate into almost all cell types , making them ideal candidates to treat a number of diseases from blindness to Parkinson’s.

However, what exactly goes on during the reprogramming process has never been fully understood. In reports by Sheryl Ubelacker of the Canadian Press,  Dr. Nagy described the process as “like a black box …. You start with a skin cell, you arrive at a stem cell — but we had no idea what was happening inside the cell.”

Until now.  In a series of reports published Thursday in Nature and Nature Communications, the team led by Dr. Nagy — including 50 researchers from labs in the Netherlands, Australia and South Korea — have laid out the path that the cells follow as the morph from ordinary to amazing.  They explained how it is, essentially, a 21-day journey and what stops the cells make along the way.  With the information they have now made universally available, researchers around the world can better understand how to put these powerful cells to work curing disease.

Dr. Nagy also discovered an entirely separate class of stem cell, which he is calling F-class. (The “F” stands for “fuzzy,” which is how the cells appear under a microscope.) The hope is that these new cells may be easier to make and safer to use in developing new therapies.

So what are the three things we can take away from this?

  1. Canadian scientists clearly rank among the best in the world. More than 50 years after two Canadians — Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch — proved the existence of stem cells, our researchers continue to do work of the highest calibre, pushing back the boundaries to knowledge.
  2. We are on the verge of great things. “We are very, very close to providing treatment to diseases which are currently incurable and devastating,” Dr. Nagy told the Toronto Star in its report Thursday.  “That’s what keeps the excitement in my lab.”
  3. It will take a concerted effort to make those great things happen — one that brings together the scientists like Dr. Nagy and those who can transform those discoveries into new treatments and cures.

Numbers 1 and 2 above are sure things. Previously blog posts have illustrated the remarkable, world-class work Canadian scientists are doing. And the investments being made in seeing the research translated into therapies — such as Japan’s. $1-billion-plus investment in iPS cells to treat diseases such as macular degeneration — strongly suggest the field is ready to start delivering new therapies for devastating diseases.

As for No. 3, that’s why we need the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan. The goal of the Strategy is for Canada to lead the way in bringing five to 10 breakthrough therapies to the clinic within 10 years that will transform the health-care landscape. It was produced by a coalition of motivated Canadians including scientists, medical professionals, health charity champions, industry experts, business leaders and philanthropists. To find out more, please click here.

 

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08
Dec 2014
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Teenager tackles tough subjects with videos

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The amazing thing about two new videos that explain how wounds heal and scars form isn’t just that they convey these complex physiological processes so clearly that almost anyone can understand them.…

The amazing thing about two new videos that explain how wounds heal and scars form isn’t just that they convey these complex physiological processes so clearly that almost anyone can understand them.

The videos — which have almost 285,000 viewings combined — were created by someone who, just months ago, was a high school student in his hometown of Calgary.

Sarthak Sinha

Sarthak Sinha

Sarthak Sinha, now an 18-year-old freshman in the University of Toronto’s life sciences program, wrote the videos after getting the go-head from the people who run TED Ed, an educational website extension of the popular TED Talks series.

Sarthak has been fascinated with wound healing since age 14, when he started volunteering after school, on weekends and during summers in the University of Calgary laboratory of Dr. Jeff Biernaskie.  Dr. Biernaskie, who was featured in our blog on stem cells and baldness, helped in looking over the editorial content for the videos. Other than that, it was all Sarthak.

“The biggest challenge was to translate the knowledge in a scientifically accurate way that can be understood at a readership level of a Grade 6 student,” says Sarthak “Not a lot of people are able to get past the jargon and access the information. It was a simple attempt at bridging that gap.”

Working with animators over three-and-a-half months to produce the videos was a rewarding experience, says Sarthak. “Bringing the ideas to life, that’s the real beauty of it,” he says.

 

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05
Dec 2014
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Cancer Stem Cell Research Dream Team: A Call for Ideas

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The best and the brightest are teaming up against cancer.

In October, Stand Up To Cancer Canada (SU2C Canada), with support from the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium (CSCC), Genome Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), announced a $10.6 million SU2C Canada Cancer Stem Cell Dream Team Research funding opportunity.…

The best and the brightest are teaming up against cancer.

In October, Stand Up To Cancer Canada (SU2C Canada), with support from the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium (CSCC), Genome Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), announced a $10.6 million SU2C Canada Cancer Stem Cell Dream Team Research funding opportunity.

SU2C Canada is an innovative funding initiative created in July 2014 to accelerate advances in cancer research. Sharing a common mission with the U.S.- based Stand Up to Cancer, active since 2008, SU2C Canada provides grants to multidisciplinary groups of scientists, called Dream Teams, who work collaboratively to develop treatments for cancer patients.

The American Association for Cancer Research International – Canada (AACR International – Canada), the Scientific Partner of SU2C Canada, issued a Call for Ideas inviting the Canadian research community to assemble into a Cancer Stem Cell Dream Team. Scientists from across the country are invited to submit  a Letter of Intent by December 8th.. Complete proposals must be sent by April 27th, 2015. Please click here for information on eligibility and submission requirements.

The qualifying Dream Team will receive approximately $10.6 million over a four-year term from CSCC, through Genome Canada and CIHR. Additional funds up to $3 million over four years from Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) will be available for clinical trials conducted in Ontario.

The research proposals will be reviewed oby the SU2C Canada Scientific Advisory Committee (CSAC), co-chaired by Nobel Laureate Dr. Phillip A. Sharp, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Dr. Alan Bernstein, President & CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and Chair of the Board of Directors for the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation.

“Dr. Sharp and I are very pleased to launch this collaborative approach to cancer research with an emphasis on working across disciplines and institutional lines to deliver new treatments in an accelerated timeframe,” says Dr. Bernstein in the SU2C Canada press release. “We look forward to reviewing extraordinary approaches to cancer research assembled by the best and brightest minds, and to selecting the best possible science that Canada has to offer.”

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27
Nov 2014
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Two sure signs of the increasing importance of investing in stem cells

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Heart surgery survivor Charlotte Desbiens with her parents

“I don’t want any other person’s parents going through what my parents went through,” says Charlotte Desbiens, a remarkable little girl who underwent three heart surgeries before age three.…

Heart surgery survivor Charlotte Desbiens with her parents

Heart surgery survivor Charlotte Desbiens with her parents

“I don’t want any other person’s parents going through what my parents went through,” says Charlotte Desbiens, a remarkable little girl who underwent three heart surgeries before age three.

Charlotte, with a sense of compassion well beyond her years, tells her story in a powerful video announcing a $130-million gift to create the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Disease.  The unprecedented donation will allow researchers to explore “the mechanism of what goes wrong in heart function,” says Dr. Janet Rossant, Chief of Research at the Hospital for Sick Children. Hers is one of the three Toronto-based organizations partnering to create the Centre.

Stem cell research and development is a major component of the work the Centre will undertake. While SickKids will focus on harnessing the genomics to decode the genetic foundations of cardiac disease and the University Health Network (UHN) will target the translation of research discoveries into the delivery of care for patients, the University of Toronto (U of T) will combine stem cell technology with new approaches in cellular and tissue engineering to find ways to regenerate heart muscle, coronary vessels, and heart valves.

The Centre is named after Edward Samuel “Ted” Rogers, Jr., the telecommunications pioneer and President and CEO of Rogers Communications Inc. until his death in 2008. According to the UHN press release, the Rogers family’s donation is the largest monetary gift ever made to a Canadian health care initiative. It will be matched with $139 million funds from SickKids, UHN, and U of T for a total investment of $269 million.

The Nov. 20th Rogers Centre announcement was one of two significant endorsements of stem cell R&D in recent days. On Tuesday, the Government of Ontario awarded $3.1 million to the Ontario Stem Cell Initiative (OSCI) and the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) to establish the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine (OIRM).

OIRM will focus on translating stem cell research into new cures and treatments for degenerative diseases.  Specific “disease challenge” teams have been identified:  Dr. Valerie Wallace at the U of T leads a team tackling age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the developed world; Dr. Gordon Keller, also at the U of T, is focusing efforts on treatments for ventricular fibrillation, the leading cause of cardiac arrest; and Dr. Mick Bhatia at McMaster University will advance the use stem cells to get the immune system to destroy tumours.  The announcement was covered in the Globe and Mail.

The key takeaway from both these announcements is that it will take a concerted effort from many different players to tackle diseases that have baffled medical science for too long. And it will take time. As noted in the Globe piece, OIRM’s $3.1 million only covers the awarded projects for a single year. “In comparison, California has invested $3 billion in regenerative medicine in the past decade and has several promising treatments now in clinical trials.”

As the newspaper reports, the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, representing a coalition of scientists, medical professionals, health charities, industry experts and philanthropists, “called on the federal government in October to commit half a billion dollars over a decade to boost stem cell research and development in Canada.”

The Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan is a 10-year plan to accelerate the safe translation of research discoveries into new cell-based therapies, products and technologies. Just as the Rogers Centre for Heart Disease has set specific goals — to reduce hospitalization for heart failure by 50% in the next 10 years — the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy keeps an eye on the prize: it’s an aggressive Action Plan for Canada to lead the way in bringing up to 10 breakthrough therapies to the clinic by 2025. It will mean Canadians will have access to effective new treatments and will reduce the burden of disease on caregivers. It will also create jobs, enhance productivity and strengthen our economy.

Find out more about the Strategy here.

Because, ultimately, it is all about finding ways to cure diseases so that wonderful little girls like Charlotte live long and happy lives. And so that parents don’t have to worry.

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17
Nov 2014
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Tricky science made simple, part V

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Recently, we posted about the release of another StemCellShorts video: “What is a retinal stem cell?” narrated by Dr. Derek van der Kooy.…

Recently, we posted about the release of another StemCellShorts video: “What is a retinal stem cell?” narrated by Dr. Derek van der Kooy. Stem Cell Shorts is a series of short informative videos produced by Ben Paylor, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Mike Long, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.

Dr. van der Kooy, professor in the Department of Medical Genetics and Microbiology at the University of Toronto, who discovered retinal stem cells in 2000 narrates the video.

Dr. van der Kooy and his team have been able to transplant retinal stem cells into the eyes of visually impaired mice and have shown that the tissue regenerated to develop better sight in the animals. Dr. van der Kooy’s hope is to treat degenerative eye diseases such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa in the next ten years.

The new video is co-sponsored by the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation and the Stem Cell Network.

All the videos — including “What is a stem cell?” narrated by Dr. Jim Till, “What are embryonic stem cells?” voiced by Dr. Janet Rossant, “What are induced pluripotent stem cells?” narrated by Dr. Mick Bhatia, “What is stem cell tourism?” voiced by Prof. Timothy Caulfield, “What is a cancer stem cell?” narrated by Dr. John Dick and “What is a retinal stem cell?” – are now available on the Foundation’s You Tube channel. Click here to view them.

Two final instalments of the series, “What is a blood stem cell?” narrated by Dr. Connie Eaves and “What is a neural stem cell?” narrated by Dr. Sam Weiss are currently in production.

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12
Nov 2014
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Dr. Allen Eaves

‘Stem cells will revolutionize medicine’

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Why the CEO of STEMCELL Technologies supports the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan

While most of us struggle to accomplish one thing in life, Dr.

Why the CEO of STEMCELL Technologies supports the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan

While most of us struggle to accomplish one thing in life, Dr. Allen Eaves has conquered three. A successful research scientist (he advanced the understanding of chronic myelogenous leukemia) and a clinician who made a significant impact on patient care (he founded one of the first and largest bone marrow transplant programs in Canada), Dr. Eaves now runs STEMCELL Technologies, the largest biotech company in British Columbia.

These days, Dr. Eaves sees himself primarily as “a businessman … and a philanthropist.” When he turned 65 in 2006, he had to retire from the University of British Columbia, where he was a professor, and the Vancouver General Hospital, where he had served as Head of Hematology, and from the internationally renowned Terry Fox Lab that he founded in 1981.

“I decided then to move over to STEMCELL and devote myself to growing the company.”

He started his company in 1993, raising the $1 million needed by mortgaging the family home and taking out a Western Economic Diversification loan.  What began as an eight-person operation now employs 600 people, most of whom work in Vancouver, manufacturing high-quality cell and tissue culturing media and tools used by researchers around the world.

“Our tagline is ‘Scientists Helping Scientists’ and that’s very genuine,” says Dr. Eaves.  “If a competitor has a better product, we will tell the scientists they should go with it. But we also feed that information back to our R&D group and come up with an even better product.”

The helpful approach is working: Dr. Eaves expects STEMCELL to hit $100 million in revenues this year. Much of that money will be ploughed back into research and development — the company has a 100-person research department. But Dr. Eaves also invests a significant portion of his profits in stem cell research. He is a major supporter of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation as both a member of the Board of Directors and a founding Till & McCulloch Leadership Circle member.

Beyond finding treatments for devastating and currently incurable diseases, stem cell-based therapies could help solve the problem of an overloaded health care system, says Dr. Eaves. And he uses the practical example of hip replacements: “Why can’t we figure out how to recoat and fix up arthritic joints so we don’t have to replace them? We should be able to resurface them with stem cell-derived cartilage. That would be simpler and could be done earlier in degenerative arthritis.  And then we wouldn’t have to replace people’s hips.  That’s the sort of practical thing you would like to see happen. That’s what we need to be thinking about.”

He also believes that to succeed in the coming revolution, Canada needs the Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan, which aligns the scientists doing the research with the industry leaders who can commercialize it and with governments supplying necessary funding to make it happen. “You need the whole spectrum of activities,” he says.

“Stem cell technology is going to revolutionize medicine; that’s the reality. Medicine will be delivered by cells and we will be using cells to repair the body. There is this huge potential out there.”

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10
Nov 2014
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Carlo Fidani,

It makes economic sense

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Why the CEO of Orlando Corp. believes we need a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy

Supporting health research comes naturally to Carlo Fidani.…

Why the CEO of Orlando Corp. believes we need a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy

Supporting health research comes naturally to Carlo Fidani. It’s in his blood.

“My grandfather was a benevolent man” says Mr. Fidani, Chair and CEO of the Orlando Corporation, one of the oldest and most successful construction and real estate development companies in Canada. “Even in the Depression, when we he didn’t have much, he found ways to help people.”

His father, Orey Fidani, inherited the generosity gene and “felt that investing in health care was something he could do to help the most people.” He passed the character trait along to Carlo, who has taken things to new heights.  In 2011, responding to the shortage of doctors in Ontario, Mr. Fidani contributed $10 million toward the University of Toronto’s Terrence Donnelly Health Sciences Complex to train more students to become MDs. He has also made major donations to advance cancer and mental health research and treatment.

He supports the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan, “because the promise of stem cells is massive.” The man whose company controls more than 40 million square feet of commercial real estate in the Greater Toronto Area sees beyond potential stem cell cures and treatments. He sees the science yielding significant economic dividends.

“The medical aspect of the stem cell is only a part of it. It’s also the economics. If we can reverse the damage of a heart attack, or help someone out who has Parkinson’s or repair a spine, can you imagine what that would do to for the financial model of our health care system?”

Noting that Canada “has always been at the epicentre of stem cell science,” he sees stem cell R&D boosting our economy by creating high-quality jobs. “It’s important from the economics perspective that we continue to find drivers of employment for highly talented people. If we want to consider ourselves a knowledge-based society, this to me is a perfect landing pad for future opportunities.”

To make it all work, though, will mean bringing together the stem cell scientists, the federal and provincial governments and Canadian industry – all pooling their resources and expertise to create and implement the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy.

“It’s no different than running a business. If we have a national strategy we’re going to be far more productive.  Right now the stem cell community is not getting the financial support it needs. In Canada, we can do more with a dollar than virtually any other country in the world.  My sense is that’s why the Strategy is so critical. If we have the ability to do that – if we have the support –  we can produce some particularly spectacular results.”

 

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03
Nov 2014
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First patient gets cell-based treatment for diabetes

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In a recent blog post, we reported a prediction by the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Tim Kieffer that it is “only a matter of time” before stem cells provide the needed source of cells to replace insulin injections.…

CIRM Screen Capture

In a recent blog post, we reported a prediction by the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Tim Kieffer that it is “only a matter of time” before stem cells provide the needed source of cells to replace insulin injections. He’s confident this will occur within 10 years.

One way it could happen is now being tested in a clinical trial at the University of California, San Diego Health System, where an American company called ViaCyte has successfully implanted its first patient with a device to treat type 1 diabetes.  Not only does ViaCyte have a Canadian connection, the exciting news from California underscores the importance of Canada implementing the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan.

The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which has supported ViaCyte in its work, blogged about the VC-01, describing it as “about the length and thickness of a credit card but only half as wide.” Implanted under the skin, the device’s progenitor cells secrete insulin whenever they detect that blood sugar is high, restoring glycemic harmony. While it can move out the insulin as needed, the device stops the immune system from moving in and destroying the insulin-producing cells.

These are, of course, early days: the primary object of the trial is to see if the device is safe, if patients can tolerate it with no adverse effects. And if they can, does it, in fact, treat their diabetes?

That said, CIRM’s leaders are understandably chuffed. The news “that this is now truly out of the lab and being tested in patients is an important step in a long road to showing that it works in patients.”  They urge cautious optimism: “The people at ViaCyte, who have been working hard on this project for many years, know that they still have a long way to go but for today at least, this step probably feels a little bit more like a skip for joy.”

What’s the Canadian connection? ViaCyte has one of the world’s top insulin experts as a scientific advisor: Dr. James Shapiro, Director of the Clinical Islet Transplant Program at the University of Alberta. In the 1990s, Dr. Shapiro co-developed the Edmonton Protocol, a procedure for implementing pancreatic islets for the treatment of type 1 diabetes.

Canada has been a leader in diabetes research since the early 1920s, when Drs. Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered insulin. The more recent work done by Dr. Shapiro and the University of Alberta team, and stem cell experts like Dr. Kieffer and the University of Toronto’s Dr. Derek van der Kooy, who first isolated pancreatic stem cells, has kept Canada at the forefront.

But, as Dr. Alan Bernstein told the Globe and Mail last week at the launch of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan, “the rest of the world is not standing still.”

California has invested $3 billion in stem cell R&D. The CIRM/ViaCyte news is proof the investment is  yielding significant dividends.

“We risk slowing down our investment while the rest of the world is speeding up, so relatively we will fall further and further behind,” Dr. Bernstein, Chair of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation,  told the Globe. “This sort of research and the clinical trials are both long-term [prospects]. They need sustained investment and they are expensive.”

The Strategy & Action Plan plots a course for Canada to lead the way in delivering up to 10 new treatments for diseases to the clinic within 10 years that could transform the health care landscape. Find out more about the Strategy here.

 

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30
Oct 2014
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Launch of Strategy & Action Plan garners national media attention

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Wednesday’s launch of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan made news across the country.  A small sample of the great media coverage the announcement garnered:

  • The Strategy story was the lead Canada item on Global TV.

Strategy Launch Media Conference

Wednesday’s launch of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan made news across the country.  A small sample of the great media coverage the announcement garnered:

  • The Strategy story was the lead Canada item on Global TV. You can view it here.
  •  It is featured in today’s Globe.
  •  You can also read about it in the PostMedia newspapers.
  • The Canadian Press also circulated the story across Canada. Here’s an example from the Brandon Sun.

The launch was also thoroughly covered in local radio, television and print media outlets.

 

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29
Oct 2014
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Strategy & Action Plan promises major leap forward to alleviate human suffering

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Today is the official launch of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan to chart  the course for Canada to lead the way in bringing up to 10 breakthrough therapies to the clinic by 2025.…

final press release

 

Today is the official launch of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan to chart  the course for Canada to lead the way in bringing up to 10 breakthrough therapies to the clinic by 2025.

The 10-year Action Plan outlined in a new report Following Through: Realizing the Promise of Stem Cells – A Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan (2015-2025)  was created by scientists, medical professionals, leaders from major health charities, industry experts and philanthropists. It is backed up by an in-depth study by KPMG and has been endorsed by an international panel of experts. The report explains how Canada can transform health care and reduce suffering and death from cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, vision loss, spinal cord injury and other devastating conditions.

Multiple sclerosis survivor Jennifer Molson was on hand at a press conference on Parliament Hill to support the Action Plan. Molson has been symptom-free for 12 years after receiving a stem cell transplant in a Canadian-led clinical trial. “I’m living proof of the tremendous potential that exists with stem cell research. I got a second chance at life. This Action Plan will help others like me live free of illness and disease.”

“Canada has always been a leader in stem cell research,” said James Price, President and CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation. “With this Action Plan and the infrastructure already in place, we have the capacity to transform health care in Canada by helping millions of Canadians through new, life-changing therapies and long-term economic growth.”

Dr. Janet Rossant, head of research at SickKids Hospital, said the time is right for Canada to seize the opportunity to move stem cell science forward: “We are at an incredibly exciting time in science where our research is leading to new treatments and therapies.”

“I’m proud to be a part of this historic coalition,” said Dr. Allen Eaves, Founder and CEO of STEMCELL Technologies Inc. “The Action Plan is ready to move forward and already has received private-sector support. Support from all governments will ensure companies like mine are able to create local jobs and, most importantly, transform stem cell research into tangible products and lifesaving therapies.”

Quick facts

  • The Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan calls for a $1.5-billion public-private investment over 10 years, including a $50-million average scaled annual commitment by the Government of Canada.
  • The Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine estimates the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan could generate more than 12,000 jobs for Canadians via the growth of existing companies and the development of new enterprises that reach global markets.
  • In 2013, more than $200 billion was spent on health care in Canada. Two thirds of that money was used to treat incurable diseases. Stem cell research, cell therapy and regenerative medicine are working towards treatment options for these diseases.
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28
Oct 2014
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Cured patient and Canadian stem cell leaders to make major announcement

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On Wednesday morning, a young woman cured by a stem cell treatment will join with a coalition representing Canadian stem cell researchers, medical professionals, business leaders and health charities for a press conference on Parliament Hill for a major announcement on Parliament Hill about the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan.  …

On Wednesday morning, a young woman cured by a stem cell treatment will join with a coalition representing Canadian stem cell researchers, medical professionals, business leaders and health charities for a press conference on Parliament Hill for a major announcement on Parliament Hill about the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan.  Please revisit this space tomorrow for details.

 

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24
Oct 2014
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Tricky science made simple, part IV

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Back in June, we announced the release of another StemCellShorts video: “What is a cancer stem cell?” narrated by Dr.

Back in June, we announced the release of another StemCellShorts video: “What is a cancer stem cell?” narrated by Dr. John Dick. Stem Cell Shorts is a series of about-a-minute-long informative videos produced by Ben Paylor, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Mike Long, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Dick, senior scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine, was the first to isolate cancer stem cells — in leukemia in 1994 and in colon cancer in 2007. Recently, he and his team found a way to disarm a gene called BMI-1 that regulates colorectal cancer stem cells.

The new video is co-sponsored by the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation and the Stem Cell Network.

All the videos — including “What is a stem cell?” narrated by Dr. Jim Till, “What are embryonic stem cells?” voiced by Dr. Janet Rossant, “What are induced pluripotent stem cells?” narrated by Dr. Mick Bhatia, and “What is a cancer stem cell?” — are now available on the Foundation’s You Tube channel. Click here to view them.

Another instalment, “What is a retinal stem cell?” narrated by Dr. Derek van der Kooy, will be released soon.

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08
Oct 2014
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International Stem Cell Awareness Day 2014

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Today marks the Seventh International Stem Cell Awareness Day, an international celebration inaugurated by California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. Scientists and organizations across the globe have an opportunity to raise public awareness of the current state of stem cell research and to share their hopes for the future advances in the field.…

Today marks the Seventh International Stem Cell Awareness Day, an international celebration inaugurated by California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. Scientists and organizations across the globe have an opportunity to raise public awareness of the current state of stem cell research and to share their hopes for the future advances in the field.

The discovery of stem cells in 1961 by Canada’s Dr. James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch represented a revolution in the field of health care. Stem cells have the potential to cure diseases, regenerate organs, prevent heart attacks, defeat diabetes and more. Significant progress in research has been made since then: stem cells have been used to treat leukemia, multiple myeloma and other blood cancers. However, much work lies ahead, as most clinical trials are still in their early stages.

Several international events will be taking place today and in the days to come. Click here to find out more.

Ben Paylor, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia and the producer of StemCellShorts will be presenting a webinar entitled “The Science of Regenarative Medicine” at 12 pm ET. Click here for details.

And if you want to discover more about stem cells, check some of our resources:

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07
Oct 2014
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Dr. Alan Bernstein

Foundation’s leader named to Medical Hall of Fame

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Dr. Alan Bernstein, Chair of the Board of Directors for the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, has received perhaps the highest national honour in medicine: membership in the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.…

Dr. Alan Bernstein, Chair of the Board of Directors for the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, has received perhaps the highest national honour in medicine: membership in the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

Dr. Bernstein, whose career encompasses success in both conducting outstanding research and creating the right conditions for outstanding research to be done, is one of six leading researchers and medical practitioners who will be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame April 23 in Winnipeg.

“The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame is proud to welcome these six medical heroes as honoured members,” Dr. Jean Gray, the Hall’s Chair. Gray, said in a press release. “Their contributions to health in Canada and the world are well documented and their induction to The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame is richly deserved.”

An internationally respected scientist, Dr. Bernstein made important discoveries in stem cell and cancer research, publishing more than 225 papers and advancing the understanding of the Friend virus in leukemia.  His stem cell roots run deep: he did his PhD studies at the University of Toronto with Dr. James Till who, with research partner Dr. Ernest McCulloch, had discovered stem cells in the early 1960s.

As director of the Mount Sinai’s Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute (now the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute) he built the institute into one of the leading research facilities in the world.  A Gairdner Wightman Award winner and Order of Canada member, he led the transformation of health research in Canada as the founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and oversaw a close to three-fold increase in Canada’s budget for health research.

After serving as CIHR’s leader for seven years, during which time he refocused and energized the Canadian health research community, Dr. Bernstein went on to head the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise.  He now serves as President and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which brings together almost  400 of Canada’s and the world’s best researchers to address questions of importance to the world.

“Alan is one of the giants of Canadian health research,” said Foundation President and CEO James Price. “With his lifetime of achievements, he truly deserves this outstanding honour. We’re delighted to congratulate him and feel extremely fortunate to have him guiding our Foundation as Board Chair.”

The other inductees include:

  • Dr. Judith G. Hall, a pediatrician and geneticist who has been at the international forefront of here field for more than four decades;
  • Dr. Bernard Langer, a global pioneer of hepatobiliary/pancreatic (HPB) surgery who developed a world-leading academic HPB and liver transplant service at Toronto General Hospital;
  • the late Dr. John McCrae, the co-author of the influential Text-Book of Pathology for Students of Medicine  and author of  In Flanders Fields;
  • Dr. Julio Montaner,  who led an international consortium of investigators to test the viability of a novel drug combination called ‘highly active antiretroviral therapy’ (HAART) to suppress HIV replication; and
  • Dr. Duncan G. Sinclair, an internationally recognized leader in health care reform.
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02
Oct 2014
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Dr. Timothy Kieffer

A step closer to curing diabetes

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The news that Dr. Timothy Kieffer’s team at the University of British Columbia, in collaboration with New Jersey based BetaLogics, has found a faster way to create insulin-producing cells is the latest example of how Canada has been a world leader in fighting type 1 diabetes.…

The news that Dr. Timothy Kieffer’s team at the University of British Columbia, in collaboration with New Jersey based BetaLogics, has found a faster way to create insulin-producing cells is the latest example of how Canada has been a world leader in fighting type 1 diabetes.

It was Canadian Sir Frederick Banting, working with medical student Charles Best, who discovered insulin in 1922 — a breakthrough that has rescued the lives of millions of diabetics around the world.  In the late 1990s, a team of researchers and doctors at the University of Alberta developed the Edmonton Protocol, a procedure for implanting pancreatic islets to treat patients with type 1 diabetes mellitus. However, widespread adoption of the protocol has been limited by the shortage of donor tissue — it can take as many as three donated pancreases for each patient.  Also, recipients need to take strong immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection of the transplanted cells.

What Dr. Kieffer and his collaborators have come up with — a protocol to turn stem cells into reliable, insulin-producing cells in about six weeks, far quicker than the four months it took using previous methods — represents a significant advance.  It brings scientists a step closer to being able to produce an unlimited supply of insulin-producing cells to treat this devastating disease that affects more than 2 million Canadians and almost 400 million people worldwide.

According to a UBC media release, the protocol transforms stem cells into insulin-secreting pancreatic cells, called S7 cells, via a cell-culture method. The conversion is completed after the cells are transplanted into a host. Tested on mice, the transplanted cells were successful in rapidly reversing diabetes.

We asked Dr. Kieffer to answer a few questions about the discovery, the results of which have been published in Nature Biotechnology, which you can read here. Here’s what he had to say:

Question: What’s the key advance here – that you can now make insulin producing cells much more quickly or that you can reverse diabetes so effectively?

Answer: The key advance with our work is the development of culture conditions to extend the maturation of the cells well beyond the pancreatic progenitor stage that we and others have previously achieved.  The cells have many characteristics of mature insulin producing beta-cells at the time we transplant them, and thus are able reverse diabetes in about one-quarter the time needed with pancreatic progenitor cells, and with only one-quarter of the cell dose.

Question:  You developed the protocol for these S7 cells with mice. How far away are you from human trials?

Answer: The protocol for cultivating the cells was developed with humans in mind, not mice.  Therefore, human cells and scalable methods for cell manufacturing were used.  Testing the cells in mice with diabetes represents an important and necessary step on the path to clinical trials.  It will be up to regulatory agencies such as Health Canada to determine what other studies are required before clinical testing can begin.  In this regard it is very encouraging that the FDA recently approved the clinical testing in patients with type 1 diabetes of pancreatic precursor cells produced by ViaCyte.

Question:  Do you see a day in the next 10 years when this kind of treatment replaces daily insulin injections?

Answer: I am quite enthusiastic for the potential of a stem cell based therapy for diabetes.  The clinical path has been proven with islet transplantation — only a few teaspoons of insulin producing cells (cadaveric islets) are infused into the patients and with this, effective glucose control can be re-established.  It is only a matter of time before stem cells provide the needed source of cells to replace insulin injections, and I predict this will be within 10 years.

Question:  You’re working with BetaLogics Venture of Janssen Research & Development, LLC on the protocol. Do you have plans to commercialize the protocol as a treatment?

Answer: The work by Dr. Alireza Rezania and colleagues at BetaLogics Venture was instrumental in this research; these are the scientists who significantly advanced the differentiation protocol.   The involvement of Janssen greatly increases the chances that this stem cell strategy will develop into a product, with the hopes it will not only treat diabetes, but ultimately cure it.

(Note: This research is supported in part by funding from JDRF, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Regenerative Medicine and Nanomedicine Initiative, and the Stem Cell Network.)

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22
Sep 2014
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Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld , right, interviews Tina Ceroni and Dr. Harry Atkins

Stem cell patient and doctor tell their story

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“It’s hard to put into words … to describe what it’s like to get your life given back to you in ways you never thought possible.”

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the story of Tina Ceroni, the Burlington, Ontario woman whose devastating Stiff Person Syndrome disease was successfully treated with a stem cell transplant by Dr.

“It’s hard to put into words … to describe what it’s like to get your life given back to you in ways you never thought possible.”

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the story of Tina Ceroni, the Burlington, Ontario woman whose devastating Stiff Person Syndrome disease was successfully treated with a stem cell transplant by Dr. Harry Atkins at the Ottawa Hospital. Over the weekend CBC Ottawa brought the patient and the doctor together to talk about how the procedure gave her her life back after the rare autoimmune disorder had taken most of it away. You can see it here.

 

 

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16
Sep 2014
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A Timely look at hope and halting progress

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Using stem cells to routinely treat disease “will take time, but when we look back 20 years from now, I think medicine and human health will be transformed by it.” 

Today in its Science pages, the New York Times provides an insightful overview of the fascinating advances and frustrating false-starts that have marked the emergence of stem cell research and development over the past 20 years.…

Using stem cells to routinely treat disease “will take time, but when we look back 20 years from now, I think medicine and human health will be transformed by it.” 

Today in its Science pages, the New York Times provides an insightful overview of the fascinating advances and frustrating false-starts that have marked the emergence of stem cell research and development over the past 20 years.

Headlined The Trials of Stem Cell Therapy, the article, from which the quote above by Dr. David Scadden, a co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, is drawn, touches on exciting work being done in heart disease and ALS. It refers to the 4,500 clinical trials involving stem cells  underway in the United States to treat patients with heart disease, blindness, Parkinson’s, H.I.V., diabetes, blood cancers and spinal cord injuries, among other conditions.

The article also delves into the frustration over the slow rate of progress — something to be expected scientists meticulously determine “how to best use stem cells, what types to use and how to deliver them to the body.” It also warns against those clinics offering miracle cures without the science to back them up, noting there will always be those who take advantage of desperate people seeking life-saving treatments.

Setbacks are to be expected, says Dr. Scadden, looking back to make his case:“Progress comes in fits and starts,” he said, comparing the halting advances in the field to the “war on cancer” declared in 1971.

 

 

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16
Sep 2014
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Margaret Atwood: the importance of the national cord blood bank

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In Monday’s the Globe and Mail, Margaret Atwood shared her thoughts about the importance of the national public cord blood bank in Canada.…

In Monday’s the Globe and Mail, Margaret Atwood shared her thoughts about the importance of the national public cord blood bank in Canada.

With Canada being an ethnically diverse country, many patients affected by leukemia, lymphoma and other diseases, are unable to find a match among donors to treat their diseases. Umbilical cord blood is rich in stem cells that can be transplanted to patients unable to find a donor.

As featured in several articles here, prior to September 2013, when the first cold blood collection facility opened in Ottawa, Canada was the only G8 country without a national collection program. Private collection banks existed already, but they were not accessible to everyone due to the costs.

Thanks to the initiative of Canadian Blood Services (CBS), there are four public cord blood collection facilities now: in Ottawa, Brampton, Edmonton and Vancouver.

CBS has been leading the $12.5-million fundraising campaign to expand the collection bank and has yet to raise the last quarter of the amount.

“Some may feel that private enterprise can take care of this need. That’s fine for those who can afford it, but what about those who can’t?” writes Ms. Atwood. “Public health services should allow care for all, not just the privileged. And so it should be with cord blood banks. I’m confident that, once they realize the need, Canadians will pitch in and get the bank completed.”

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15
Sep 2014
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Dr. Michael Rudnicki

Why does it take longer to heal as we age?

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When we’re young, we bounce back from injury fairly quickly. As we age, we lose that capacity to rebuild our muscles and get back in the game.…

When we’re young, we bounce back from injury fairly quickly. As we age, we lose that capacity to rebuild our muscles and get back in the game.

The question is, why? New research into muscle stem cells is helping solve the puzzle.

Working with mice, a team led by Dr. Michael Rudnicki, senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI), found that as muscle stem cells age, their functionality is compromised by increased activation of a signalling pathway called JAK/STAT that transmits information to cells from surrounding tissue.

“What’s really exciting to our team is that when we used specific drugs to inhibit the JAK/STAT pathway, the muscle stem cells in old animals behaved the same as those found in young animals,” Dr. Rudnicki, who is a member of our Foundation’s Board of Directors, explained in an OHRI media release.  “These inhibitors increased the older animals’ ability to repair injured muscle and to build new tissue.”

The findings were published last week in the prestigious journal Nature Medicine.

According to the media release, the stem cells aren’t getting the message to maintain their populations. As we age, the JAK/STAT pathway gets busier, altering how muscle stem cells, called satellite cells, divide and reducing the number of regenerating cells. This, in turn, reduces our capacity to repair and rebuild muscle.

While this is early stage research, the implications are exciting.  It opens up the possibility of developing JAK/STAT inhibiting drugs to treat muscle-wasting diseases such as muscular dystrophy.

The next step is looking for less toxic molecules — the drugs used in this study are commonly used for chemotherapy — that could have the same effect.

For more information about stem cells and muscular dystrophy, click here.

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11
Sep 2014
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UK researchers post ‘encouraging’ results in stroke study

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The sample size is far too small to prove much yet, but doctors in Britain have seen “very encouraging” results from a new therapy that delivers stem cells extracted from patients’ bone marrow to their brains within days of having suffered a stroke.…

The sample size is far too small to prove much yet, but doctors in Britain have seen “very encouraging” results from a new therapy that delivers stem cells extracted from patients’ bone marrow to their brains within days of having suffered a stroke.

According to a report published in August in Stem Cells Translational Medicine,  all five patients who took part in the pilot study showed improvements over a six-month follow-up period.

This is significant because all but one of the five had the most severe type of stroke from which only four per cent of patients usually recover and regain independence. A story carried in the Daily Mail reported that  all four of these severe-stroke patients were alive and three were independent after half a year.

In the trial, believed to be the of its kind, the patients received purified CD34+ cells,  which are stem cells found in the bone marrow.  The patients got the these cells within a week of their attacks (in previous studies stem cells were infused months afterwards) to release  chemicals to spur  growth of new tissue and blood vessels in the parts of the brain damaged by stroke.

Dr Soma Banerjee, a lead author and Consultant in Stroke Medicine at London’s Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, urged caution:  “This study showed that the treatment appears to be safe and that it’s feasible to treat patients early when they might be more likely to benefit. The improvements we saw in these patients are very encouraging, but it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions … We need to do more tests to work out the best dose and timescale for treatment before starting larger trials.”

Should the therapy prove effective in larger scale clinical trials, the implications are enormous. Stroke is a major killer and disabler.  According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, there are 50,000 strokes in Canada each year — a rate of one every 10 minutes.

The University of Toronto’s Dr. Cindi Morshead, whose research explores using stem cell s in regenerative medicine, called the study “quite comprehensive.”  She pointed out that the researchers screened more than 80 potential candidates for the study before selecting the five who got the treatment. “It was a safety trial so they really had to be careful in their selection.  But five out of 80 people able to benefit from this, that’s still pretty good. ”

As someone who works in the field, she’s optimist about the results. “My takeaway is that it’s exciting. Two of the people in the study were quite young: 45 and 47. It’s hugely significant — they’ve only lived half their lives.”

For a comprehensive look at using stem cells to treat stroke, click here.

 

 

 

 

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08
Sep 2014
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Chris Hadfield talks science funding on CBC

Serendipity versus eye-on-the-prize science

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“It’s not about basic science versus commercialization. The two need to work together.”

So says Michael May, CEO of the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine on Friday’s edition of CBC Radio Program The Current.…

“It’s not about basic science versus commercialization. The two need to work together.”

So says Michael May, CEO of the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine on Friday’s edition of CBC Radio Program The Current. Guest host Chris Hadfield featured a segment on whether the federal government’s emphasis on applied science is a detriment to basic research.

Also featured in the broadcast is an interview with Dr.  Peter Zandstra who explains the fascinating bio-engineering work he is doing to scale up stem cells for use in drug testing. The University of Toronto’s Dr. Zandstra is a member of the Foundation’s Science Leadership Council.

It’s a lively, discussion of the arguments for and against emphasizing  practical, eye-on-the-prize research over  serendipitous discovery. The podcast is available here. Just scroll down to the item titled “Some academics worry if Canada’s commitment to funding commercial research over basic science will backfire.”

 

 

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03
Sep 2014
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P.K Subban took the Ice Buck Challenge

The Ice Bucket phenomenon and the excitement about stem cells

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P.K Subban has done it. So has Mike Holmes. And Toronto’s infamous Mayor Rob Ford.  Have you poured a bucket of ice water over your head to raise awareness — and funds — about ALS?…

P.K Subban has done it. So has Mike Holmes. And Toronto’s infamous Mayor Rob Ford.  Have you poured a bucket of ice water over your head to raise awareness — and funds — about ALS? (more…)

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26
Aug 2014
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Dr. Harry Atkins

No more living like a statue

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Dr. Harry Atkins’ success in treating a rare disease that can turn active, healthy people into living statues is getting the national attention it deserves this week, thanks to the Journal of the American Medical Association’s publication of his paper, Autologous Stem Cell Transplantation for Stiff Person Syndrome.…

Dr. Harry Atkins’ success in treating a rare disease that can turn active, healthy people into living statues is getting the national attention it deserves this week, thanks to the Journal of the American Medical Association’s publication of his paper, Autologous Stem Cell Transplantation for Stiff Person Syndrome.

The JAMA Neurology paper describes two Canadian women who have had all symptoms of their Stiff Person Syndrome (SPF) disappear thanks to a stem cell treatment that Dr. Atkins and his team at the Ottawa Hospital have developed. Readers of this blog will be familiar with one of the women’s stories — we told you all about Tina Ceroni back in December  After our post, Canada AM featured Tina and Dr. Atkins.

This week’s reports, including Elizabeth Payne’s excellent news feature (the “living statue” description is hers) that appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and  the National Post, explain how SPS,  which strikes about one in a million people, triggers episodes in which muscles seize up uncontrollably, leaving a person rigid.  Sheryl Ubelacker of the Canadian Press describes it this way in the Toronto Star:

“SPS is characterized by episodes of stiffness in the muscles and painful muscle spasms, which can be brought on by stress, loud noises or emotional distress. Some people with the disorder are so disabled they are unable to walk or move and may isolate themselves at home to avoid triggering an attack.”

Ms Payne’s story also tells of a third woman, a 53-year-old mother of six named Ingrid Steppan who was told she would likely die from her SPS. A recent transplant patient, she has now “put her wheelchair and walker away.”

Success with MS, Crohn’s and other autoimmune conditions

Dr. Atkins has used this technique with other autoimmune diseases, including Multiple Sclerosis (where he led a multi-year clinical trial involving about 30 patients) Crohn’s disease and neuromyelitis optica.  The process involves extracting a patient’s bone marrow stem cells, then purifying and fortifying them. After the patient undergoes extreme chemotherapy, in which their immune system is effectively destroyed, the purified and fortified stem cells are put back to build a new disease-free immune system.

A modest and soft-spoken man, Dr. Atkins does not used the word “cured” when he talks about the patients who have had success with this treatment. He refers to his patients as “in remission.”  For Jennifer Molson, an MS patient, that remission has lasted more than a decade. And in the case of Jelissa Morgan, the treatment has allowed her to overcome her crippling neuromyelitis optica and will be resuming her nursing career in September.

The success that Dr. Atkins is having is encouraging and offers great hope for the future.  But it also harkens back to the past: the procedure he is refining can be traced back to the groundbreaking work the Canadians Jim Till and Ernest McCulloch did in proving the existence of stem cells in the early 1960s. It’s an area of medical science where Canada researchers excel. And people like  Tina Ceroni, Jennfer Molson, Jelissa Morgan …  and now Ingrid Steppan are living proof.

Harrys Angels Screen Capture 2

Dr. Harry Atkins with former patients Jelissa Morgan, Jennifer Molson and Tina Ceroni

 

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23
Jul 2014
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Hope, time and (good) practice

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An editorial in the June 11th edition of Nature does two things remarkably well: it offers hope for the future of stem cell science while explaining why it takes so long to get things right.…

An editorial in the June 11th edition of Nature does two things remarkably well: it offers hope for the future of stem cell science while explaining why it takes so long to get things right.

Headlined “Good practice” the Nature piece explains why: “… shortcuts are simply not possible, despite charlatan claims. It takes time to learn how to coax stem cells — either from human embryos or from reprogrammed adult cells known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells — to develop into the right sort of replacement cell. It also takes time to work out how to get these cells to integrate into the host tissue and to function. And the steps required to work out how many replacement cells need to be delivered, and how to deliver them safely, cannot be rushed …”

The editorial urges patience as the field “inches towards clinical testing” and points to two recent developments that inspire considerable optimism.

One is the commencement of clinical trials to treat macular degeneration using retinal stem cells (covered in previous posts here).

The other is the resumption of a clinical trial to test whether embryonic stem cells can help regrow nerves damaged by spinal cord injury. The original trial was halted in 2011 when Geron, the company behind it, decided to use its limited resources elsewhere. Now Asterias Biotherapeutics, buoyed by a $14.3-million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, is picking up where Geron left off. (Nature doesn’t mention a Canadian led spinal cord study, but you can read about it here.)

As the article points out, the eye and the spine, in terms of stem cell research, present somewhat easier paths to the clinic: both are isolated, closed systems. The brain and heart, however, are far more complicated. Developing new, stem cell-derived treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and for cardiovascular conditions will be far more complicated. But there is reason for hope: “Happily, clinical trials are on the horizon. Treatments for Parkinson’s disease are just a few years away from clinical testing. And some for Huntington’s disease may not be far behind.”

One of the reasons things have taken so long is the relative newness of the field: the discovery of embryonic stem cells, which triggered much of the explosion of research underway today, was just 16 years ago. Getting scientists to agree on standardized processes and protocols has taken time. The editorial points to early-days clinical trials for Parkinson’s that didn’t use standardized practices, leading to varying results that were an “uninterpretable mishmash.”

The editorial praises Parkinson’s Disease Global Force, which is bringing together research teams from Europe, the United States and Japan to define standards for cell preparation and patient selection and monitoring for future trials. The scientists will share their universally applicable results, which in turn will move the science forward toward finding treatments and cures.

In short, there will be more trials, fewer errors. And, in the not-too-distant future, new treatments.

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26
Jun 2014
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stemcelltourism stem cellshorts

Tricky science made simple, Part III

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Back in January, we blogged about the StemCellShorts videos, a series of about-a-minute-long informative videos produced by Ben Paylor, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, and Dr.

Back in January, we blogged about the StemCellShorts videos, a series of about-a-minute-long informative videos produced by Ben Paylor, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Mike Long, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.

A brand new video in the excellent series is now available. Narrated by Prof. Timothy Caulfield, a member of our Foundation’s Science Leadership Council, it answers the question “What is stem cell tourism?”

Stem cell tourism is one of the biggest challenges for stem cell community. While great advances have been made in bone marrow stem cell transplants and stem-cell driven skin grafts, most stem cell treatments are still in the research phase. However, the number of clinics offering unproven and unsafe therapies worldwide is growing. (Click here to read our blog entries about stem cell tourism.)

All the videos — including “What is a stem cell?” narrated by Dr. Jim Till, “What are embryonic stem cells?” voiced by Dr. Janet Rossant, and “What are induced pluripotent stem cells?” narrated by Dr. Mick Bathia —  are now available on the Foundation’s You Tube channel. Click here to view them.

Another instalment, covering the topic “What is a cancer stem cell?” and narrated by Dr. John Dick, will be launched later this year. This second set of videos is co-sponsored by the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation and the Stem Cell Network.

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11
Jun 2014
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What’s the ‘real deal’ on stem cells?

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The day before 3,600 scientists, clinicians, educators and industry professionals from around the world gather in Vancouver next week for the International Society of Stem Cell Researchers’ summit, the public will get a chance to hear about the ‘real deal’ on stem cells.…

The day before 3,600 scientists, clinicians, educators and industry professionals from around the world gather in Vancouver next week for the International Society of Stem Cell Researchers’ summit, the public will get a chance to hear about the ‘real deal’ on stem cells.

Moderated by the Vancouver Sun’s Pamela Fayerman, the Tuesday, June 17th symposium focuses on why stem cells, which have been hailed for the past two decades as having the potential to fight so many diseases, have — with some notable exceptions — been slow to deliver.

The panel that includes Prof. Timothy Caulfield, author of The Cure for Everything and member of our Foundation’s Science Leadership Council, and stem cell transplant recipient Jennifer Molson will tackle the question: Why is it taking so long to make these promised therapies a reality? Industry investment expert Gregory Bonfiglio of Proteus Venture Partners and University of British Columbia stem cell researcher Dr. Kelly McNagny will also share their views.

It’s an important question. The translation of stem cell research discoveries into stem cell therapies takes a long time. It includes securing funding, getting regulatory approvals and conducting rigorous — and hugely expensive — clinical trials. In the meantime, unregulated clinics are popping up around the planet, offering “miracle” stem cell cures that have not been proven safe or effective.

The symposium, sponsored by the Stem Cell Network and the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, will be held in the OmniMax Theatre at Science World at TELUS World of Science. For more information, click here.

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09
Jun 2014
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TT

Toward Treatments: how stem cells can/may soon help you

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About a year ago, we launched Toward Treatments, a user-friendly resource to help all Canadians — but especially patients, their families and friends — to understand:

• how stem cells can be used to treat devastating diseases;
• which stem cell therapies are currently accessible; and
• which ones could be available in the near future.…

About a year ago, we launched Toward Treatments, a user-friendly resource to help all Canadians — but especially patients, their families and friends — to understand:

• how stem cells can be used to treat devastating diseases;
• which stem cell therapies are currently accessible; and
• which ones could be available in the near future.

Written in reader-friendly language, each Toward Treatment disease summary starts off with the Four Questions people most want answered: Are there stem cell treatments available? If not, when might they be available? What are scientists hoping stem cells can do? Are clinical trials currently underway? That’s followed by a more detailed look at what the researchers are working on right now and what lies ahead.

We launched Toward Treatments with a dozen disease summaries, ranging from ALS to Stroke. By year’s end we had expanded to 16. As of today, there are 19 Toward Treatments, including three new entries available: Arthritis, Cerebral Palsy and Crohn’s disease.

Each Toward Treatments summary has been reviewed by a panel of scientists to make sure they are fair and balanced and up-to-date. Stem cells hold the potential to treat different types of diseases by stimulating the body to repair itself. But while significant advances have been made in recent years, many stem cell therapies have a long road ahead before being available to patients. This is about hope, not hype.

We invite you to check them out.

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12
May 2014
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CellCAN aims to make regenerative medicine a reality

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CellCAN, a new national Regenerative Medicine and Cell Therapy Network officially began operations today in Montreal.

Based at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital, the new Network will support clinical development of regenerative medicine.…

CellCAN, a new national Regenerative Medicine and Cell Therapy Network officially began operations today in Montreal.

Based at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital, the new Network will support clinical development of regenerative medicine.

“Regenerative cell therapies offer almost unlimited possibilities that will transform the very nature of medicine and will have a significant impact on our health systems,” said Dr. Denis Claude Roy, a member of the Joint Strategy Working Group for the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy and Director of CellCAN, in a press release.

With Canada ranking among the top countries in the world in stem cell research, the goal of CellCAN is “to provide the essential bridge between research and clinical and commercial applications, helping regenerative medicine and cell therapy to successfully meet expectations.”

CellCAN will bring together the main stem cell therapy centres and different stakeholders involved in stem cell research — scientists, governments, researchers, clinicians, funders, industry, charities, patient representatives and the public.

“Specifically, CellCAN will promote exchanges, cooperation, partnership, development and innovation in regenerative medicine and cell therapy,” said Dr. Roy.

Over the next four years, CellCAN will receive $1.6 million through the Networks of Centres of Excellence Program, which provides national funding on behalf of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, along with Industry Canada and Health Canada.

The Canadian Stem Cell Foundation will closely support and partner with CellCAN in its efforts to facilitate and increase access to stem cell therapies for heart diseases, diabetes, cancer and other diseases that affect Canadians.

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12
May 2014
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Putting patients first in Strategy

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Making sure that Canadian patients have safe, early access to the kind of innovative treatments that will emerge from stem cell research was the focus of the Second Health Charities Forum.…

Making sure that Canadian patients have safe, early access to the kind of innovative treatments that will emerge from stem cell research was the focus of the Second Health Charities Forum.

“There clearly is strong support for moving stem cell research forward safely and effectively,” says James Price, President & CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, which organized the Forum in partnership with the Health Charities Coalition of Canada.  “The health charities, which represent millions of patients, realize they have an absolutely vital role to play in making sure that patients benefit from the emergence of new stem cell based treatments and cures.”

Held April 29th in Toronto, the second Forum — a first was held in November — was part of an ongoing national dialogue to craft a strategy for advancing stem cell research and development.  Discussion centred on ensuring patients can safely access innovative therapies as they make the transition from clinical trials stage to clinical practice.

The health charities leaders agreed that their organizations are ready to play an important role in patient/public engagement for the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan and its ultimate implementation.

Along with input from the health charities, the final draft of the Strategy,  slated to be ready this fall,  will reflect more than nine months of expert stakeholder consultations with  stem cell researchers, business and community leaders, industry and other leaders.

Second Health Charities Forum Participants

• Bill Barrable (The Rick Hansen Institute)
• Alan Bernstein (Canadian Stem Cell Foundation)
• Sîan Bevan (Canadian Cancer Society)
• Sue DeLisle (Canadian Stem Cell Foundation)
• Sam Donaldson (Ontario Stem Cell Initiative)
• Debbie Fung (KPMG)
• Janet Hux (Canadian Diabetes Association)
• Lori Lyons (The Foundation Fighting Blindness- Canada)
• Robin Markowitz (Lymphoma Canada);
• Michael May (Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine)
• Rob Oliphant (The Asthma Society)
• Biljana (Billie) Potkonjak (Canadian Liver Foundation)
• James Price (Canadian Stem Cell Foundation)
• Carolyn Pullen (Heart and Stroke Foundation)
• Johnathan Riley (The Arthritis Society)
• Janet Rossant (Ontario Stem Cell Initiative)
• Lisa Salapatek (Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada)
• Marla Spiegel (Muscular Dystrophy Canada)
• Phil Welford (Stem Cell Network)

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05
May 2014
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Marc Turner Screen Capture

There will be (stem cell derived) blood

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Over the next three years, a team of Scottish scientists hope to prove that the blood they are making from stem cells is as good as — or even better — for transfusions than the ordinary donated kind.…

Over the next three years, a team of Scottish scientists hope to prove that the blood they are making from stem cells is as good as — or even better — for transfusions than the ordinary donated kind.

Although it has hardly raised an eyebrow in Canada, this potentially game-changing research has been big news in the United Kingdom where it was featured in the Daily Mail, a splashy tabloid with a circulation of 1.75 million. As the Mail suggested, this “could lead to a future where artificial blood is used more regularly than donated blood.”

Prof. Marc Turner, pictured left, leads a lab at the University of Edinburgh that has successfully produced red blood cells from human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (stem cells drawn from the skin that are reprogrammed to an embryonic-like state).  The researchers have made a careful study of the cells’ properties in test tubes and Petri dishes. “But the only real way of finding out if these are the Real McCoys and that they fit in the circulation the same way as normal red blood cells is do a proof of principle, ‘first in man’ study,”  says Prof. Turner, the Medical Director at Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service  and leader of the  £5 million ($9.27 million) project.

How could this stem cell derived blood be better? The human body produces millions red blood cells every minute of every hour. These cells, which transport oxygen around the body via their hemoglobin content, last about 120 days.  So when you donate blood at your local clinic, some of it might be 119 days old and ready for the scrap heap. Stem cell generated red blood cells, however, are all brand, spanking new.  Ideally, then, they should all put in a good four months’ work in the bloodstream after transfusion. That’s what Prof. Turner’s team wants to find out.

The Scots aren’t the first to do this. In a 2011 paper published in BloodFrance’s Dr. Luc Douay showed that red blood cells derived from adult stem cells performed “favorably” compared to “native red blood cells” when transfused into a test subject.  As well, labs around the world have been successful in producing red blood cells using embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells.

The problem has been “scaling up” the number of red blood cells required to do clinical trials. Dr. Douay used hematopoietic (blood-based) stem cells for his breakthrough.  “But researchers don’t have culture conditions that can support a very large expansion of hematopoietic stem cells,” says Dr. Julie Audet, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto.  “So this step of amplification of the starting material is causing problems.”

Another challenge, says Dr. Audet, is that red blood cells derived from embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cells lack maturity: the hemoglobin they carry is more like the stuff of newborns than that of adults.

While Prof. Turner acknowledges the fetal quality hemoglobin isn’t ideal, it is functional. “It will do for the time being. We have some ideas about how we might try and nudge the cells to an added degree of maturity.  It’s important, but it’s not a showstopper at this stage.”

As for the “scaling up” challenge, he thinks they have that figured out — at least for their current very small (three-patient) study. “It will only require relatively modest volumes of red cells. After that, on the big assumption that that we will be successful, we will be looking to go into proper clinical study. That’s when we will start to confront the issues of scale up.”

So what does it all mean? Are blood donor clinics destined to go become a relic of a bygone era?

Not any time soon, says Prof. Turner.

“This is years or decades away. We don’t want people to stop donating blood just now, please.”

The more immediate application, he says, could be using the process for people with thalassemia, a genetic disorder that causes destruction of red blood cells.

“These patients are dependent on long-term red blood cell transfusions. They survive well now compared to decades ago, but they do have a problem with iron loading. One of the potential advantages of having a younger cohort of red cells is they should last longer in circulation. That would offer a clinical advantage.”

So the potential short-term impact is important, but limited. Longer term, however, this could change everything.

“In the very long term, it may be possible to generate red cells for general use,” says Prof. Turner.

“That obviously would have an advantage in those countries that don’t have a secure supply of blood. Developed countries like Canada and the UK have sufficient sources of cells and pretty secure and safe blood supplies. But we shouldn’t take that for granted.  Certainly, we’re all familiar with problems with (transfusion transmitted) infections in the past, like Hepatitis C. And we’ve had problems with Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease here in the UK.”

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28
Apr 2014
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International Panel envisions leading role for Canada in cell therapy boom

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Canada can play a lead role in the coming boom in regenerative medicine and cell therapy technologies, according to an International Expert Advisory Panel.

Canada can play a lead role in the coming boom in regenerative medicine and cell therapy technologies, according to an International Expert Advisory Panel.

Led by Chair Dr. George Q. Daley of Harvard Medical School, pictured at left, the panelists agreed that stem cell research and development is at a major inflection point, and that the next decade will see the arrival of novel disease treatments that will transform patients’ lives and build a new multibillion dollar cell therapy industry.

The Panel, with experts from stem cell research, ethics, and commercialization and the biomedical industry, met in Toronto earlier this spring to review a draft of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan.

Panelists agreed that Canada is in a strong position thanks to a remarkable record of research excellence, from the discovery of stem cells more than 50 years ago by Drs. Jim Till and Ernest McCulloch to Dr. John Dick’s identification of the cellular origins of leukemia earlier this year.

The Panel also cited Canada’s collaborative, well-trained and well-equipped R&D community and the country’s universal health care system, which can facilitate large-scale clinical trials, as other key factors in driving new therapies to the clinic.

They saw a clear need for developing and implementing a Canadian strategy to capitalize on those strengths and capture the health and economic benefits that to be realized over the next 10 years.

The International Expert Advisory Panel will meet again in Vancouver in June. The Panel’s comments and suggestions — along with those from workshops with health charities organizations, clinicians, researchers, industry leaders and philanthropists — will help shape the final version of the Strategy.

International Expert Advisory Panel Members

George Q. Daley (Chair)

Samuel E. Lux IV Professor of Hematology/Oncology, Harvard Medical School

Director, Stem Cell Transplantation Program, Children’s Hospital Boston

Boston, MA, USA

Alan Bernstein

President & Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research

Founding President, Canadian Institutes of Health Research

Toronto, ON

Gregory Bonfiglio

Founder & Managing Partner, Proteus Venture Partners

Portola Valley, CA, USA

Julia Levy

Co-Founder and former President & CEO and Chief Scientific Officer, QLT Inc.

Vancouver, BC

Geoff MacKay

President and Chief Executive Officer, Organogenesis Inc.

Canton, MA, USA

Chris Mason

Professor of Regenerative Medicine Bioprocessing

Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering, University College of London

London, UK

Debra Mathews

Assistant Director for Science Programs, Berman Institute of Bioethics, Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD, USA

Stephen Minger

Global Head, Research & Development for Cell Technologies, GE Healthcare Life Sciences

London, UK

Martin Pera

Professor Stem Cell Sciences, University of Melbourne

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and The Florey Neurosciences Institute

Program Leader of Stem Cells Australia

Melbourne, VIC, Australia

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24
Apr 2014
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Gene that regulates leukemia will take time (and patience) to tame

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While patience is a virtue for most of us, it is an absolute prerequisite for stem cell researchers.

The recent news that scientists have identified a gene called BRG1 that appears to regulate leukemia stem cells marks an important advance in understanding the dread disease.…

While patience is a virtue for most of us, it is an absolute prerequisite for stem cell researchers.

The recent news that scientists have identified a gene called BRG1 that appears to regulate leukemia stem cells marks an important advance in understanding the dread disease. It also signifies years of work by the team led by Dr. Julie Lessard at the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) of Université de Montréal.

“About four years,” says Dr. Lessard, pictured left, one of Canada’s leading researchers in the field of hematopoiesis — the art of blood production.

Using mice as subjects, Dr. Lessard’s team found that removing the BRG1 gene left the leukemia stem cells and progenitors unable to survive, divide and make new tumors, permanently shutting down the cancer.  But while they are delighted with their findings, the researchers know they are in for many more years of work.

“We need to identify BRG1 inhibitors that will work in vitro (in test tubes and Petri dishes) and in vivo (with animals and humans),” says Dr. Lessard. “We believe that it is the ATPase activity that is the essential function we need to target for potential drug development, so that’s what we’re going after.”

In essence, that means finding small molecules that can stifle BRG1, the research equivalent to finding a needle in a haystack. Fortunately, IRIC is equipped with computer-driven high throughput screening to search their library of about 120,000 molecules for one that will do the trick. “We are hoping we can get there in the coming years,” she says.

Dr. Lessard’s findings further strengthen Canadian leadership in the field of stem cells and hematopoiesis. It was two Ontario Cancer Institute researchers — Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch — who first proved the existence of stem cells in the early 1960s while trying to find new treatments for leukemia. Dr. John Dick, of Toronto’s University Health Network, first identified tumour-initiating cancer stem cells in 1997.

What’s particularly intriguing about Dr. Lessard’s findings is that shutting down the BRG1 gene only appears to affect leukemia-generating stem cells. “Its function in the normal stem cell is rather modest. So you can take the gene out of leukemic cells and it will shut them down without shutting down the other stem cells you need to continue growth.”

While Dr. Lessard is excited about this project, she’s realistic about the amount of time and work involved.

“First of all, we have to have a very solid preclinical product to test in animals.  We think that a therapeutic window must exist. And this is what makes this study more interesting. It will be very exciting to explore in the coming years.”

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23
Apr 2014
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pioneers of medicine without a noble prize

Till & McCulloch in brilliant company with other non-Nobel laureates

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Since the first award was handed out in 1901, the Nobel Prize has become globally regarded as the most prestigious recognition of intellectual achievement.…

Since the first award was handed out in 1901, the Nobel Prize has become globally regarded as the most prestigious recognition of intellectual achievement. What’s amazing, however, is how often the Nobel committee has glaringly overlooked researchers behind outstanding discoveries that changed the practice of medicine.

Pioneers of Medicine Without a Nobel Prize, just published by the United Kingdom’s Imperial College Press, tells the stories of giants in medical science who somehow never won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Among the 15 featured scientists are:
• heart transplant pioneers Drs. Christiaan Barnard and Norman Shumway;
Dr. Richard Doll, who made the link between smoking and lung cancer;
Drs. Inge Edler and Carl Helmuth Hertz, who developed ultrasound technology; and
Dr. Akira Endo, the discoverer of statins.

One chapter of the book, written by the Foundation’s Joe Sornberger, is dedicated to Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch, the “fathers of stem cell research.” The two Canadians proved the existence of stem cells in the early 1960s at the Ontario Cancer Institute, while working on the sensitivity of bone marrow cells to radiation in mice.

Dr. Till still remembers the “Eureka” moment, when his partner Dr. McCulloch showed him a piece of graph paper on which he had illustrated that the more marrow cells were transplanted, the more bumps on the spleens appeared. After two years of work, Till and McCulloch showed that the bumps were formed by individual transplanted cells, which had proliferated and given rise to blood-forming cells.

That Dr. Till & McCulloch were somehow overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is inexplicable to many. As a previous post explained, there was some thought that Dr. Till would be handed his long overdue Nobel Laureate’s wreath two years ago alongside Japan’s Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who discovered induced pluripotent stem cells. (Dr. McCulloch died in 2011, making him ineligible). Canada has not brought home a Nobel in this category in over 90 years — not since Dr. Frederick Banting, discoverer of insulin, won in 1923.

Then again, when amazing giants such as Drs. Willem Kolff and Belding Scribner, who developed the Renal Haemodialysis, are left off the Nobel list, Drs. Till & McCulloch are in brilliant company.

For those who would like the full story of this amazing Canadian success story, you can purchase a copy of Mr. Sornberger’s book, Dreams & Due Diligence, published by University of Toronto Press, here.

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11
Apr 2014
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Stem cell research in California: ten years later

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Ten years ago, Californians voted in favor of Proposition 71 to support stem cell research, committing $3 billion to stem cell research and creating the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state agency that allocates the funds.…

Ten years ago, Californians voted in favor of Proposition 71 to support stem cell research, committing $3 billion to stem cell research and creating the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state agency that allocates the funds.

In 2011, CIRM announced it would fund its first human clinical trial using a stem-cell derived therapy, committing $25 million to a company called Geron to test the use of neural stem cells in patients in spinal cord injury. It was an inauspicious start: Geron shut down the trial after about six months and gave back the money, citing a desire to focus on experimental cancer therapies that were further along in the development pipeline.

However, CIRM has carried on. And according to the Sacramento Business Journal nine of the first 14 stem cell trials the agency has funded have either started enrolling patients or will begin doing so by the end of the year. Two trials are already underway: one testing therapies for HIV/AIDS, the other for congestive heart failure. Other trials set to begin include therapies for leukemia and solid tumor cancers, degenerative eye disease, Type I diabetes, sickle cell disease and a serious blood disorder.

“It’s the largest funding in the world for this particular science and it turned California into the epicenter for stem cell research,” said Dr. Jonathan Thomas, board chairman for the CIRM.

The process of transition from studies in mice to human trials is daunting and complex. (Read our recent blog entry on the state of stem cell trials about the state of stem cell clinical trials around the world.) But bringing more potential therapies to clinical trials is absolutely crucial.

“The world is full of cured mice,” says Dr. Jonathan Thomas. “You never know what you get in humans but this is how you find out. You have to get to clinical trials.”

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09
Apr 2014
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Thinking outside the heart

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Stem cell derived mini-heart can pump blood through sluggish veins

A U.S.-based researcher has come up with what she believes is a stem cell solution for sluggish blood flow that could knock the socks off the current standard of care.…

Stem cell derived mini-heart can pump blood through sluggish veins

A U.S.-based researcher has come up with what she believes is a stem cell solution for sluggish blood flow that could knock the socks off the current standard of care.

“Compression stockings have been used since antiquity,” says Dr. Narine Sarvazyan, a researcher at George Washington University in Washington, DC. “So we really haven’t made much progress in treating chronic venous insufficiency.”

The condition is common, affecting between 20-30% of people over the age of 50. It can be particularly distressing for people with diabetes, causing non-healing ulcers to form on their legs or ankles. It can also affect people who are paralyzed and those recovering from surgery.

Dr. Sarvazyan’s solution is to implant a “mini-heart” made of stem cell derived heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes at the site where the blood is stagnating.  The cells form a cuff that wraps around the problem vein while rhythmically contracting and releasing to move the blood along. You can see a short video of how it works here.

The invention of the mini-heart has caused quite a stir online.  It has been picked up by the Huffington Post, Science Daily and Business Standard

So far, Dr. Sarvazyan has only created “in vitro” (Petri dish) versions of the mini-hearts in her lab. Her next step, after finalizing the design, will be to move to animal tests with rats and, ultimately, pigs. In a best-case scenario, she hopes to begin clinical trials with people after about two years.

The advantage is the mini-hearts can be tailor-made from stem cells extracted from the patient’s own fatty tissue so that there will be no danger of rejection and little risk of inflammation.

“It’s a very different application,” says Dr. Sarvazyan. “Most people who work with these cardiomyocytes have a goal of repairing cardiac muscles. That is pretty much where everyone is aiming.  But the idea came into my mind that we can use the same tissue and actually use it in different locations much more easily. You don’t have to have that much structured muscle. It doesn’t have to have much force. It’s easier to vascularize because it’s smaller.”

Dr. Sarvazyan outlines the advantages in a paper called Thinking Outside the Heart, published, in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

“So far I don’t see any downsides,” she told Stem Cell NewsDesk.  “Of course, nature is much smarter than us. It’s possible when we put it in animals, something may happen that we could not predict.  I can’t say for sure that it will work — we definitely need to test it.”

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08
Apr 2014
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Calgary looks ahead to performing transplants

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The National Public Cord Blood Bank will have an impact in cities beyond those doing the collection.

The first cord blood collecting facility was opened in September 2013 in Ottawa, followed by Brampton, Edmonton and Vancouver, where a collection facility was launched in January at BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre.…

The National Public Cord Blood Bank will have an impact in cities beyond those doing the collection.

The first cord blood collecting facility was opened in September 2013 in Ottawa, followed by Brampton, Edmonton and Vancouver, where a collection facility was launched in January at BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre.

The Calgary Herald reported yesterday that the collection of umbilical cord blood will benefit the Southern Alberta city’s hospitals making it possible to perform stem cell transplants at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and the Tom Baker Cancer Centre later this year.

“There’s a good chance we may find donors for Canadian children in the Canadian cord bank,” says Dr. Victor Lewis, a pediatric oncologist at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

Cord blood cells are a rich source of stem cells, which can be transplanted to treat diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma, which account for almost half of all cancers occurring in children between the ages of 0 and 14.

The existence of a national bank will reduce the costs of importing cord blood units from abroad and will increase the chances of finding a better match for Canadians in need of a transplant.

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07
Apr 2014
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Jeff Biernaskie Screen Captuer

Jeff Biernaskie

The bald truth

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The Daily Mail, one of the feistier UK tabloid papers, recently blasted this headline across its health pages:

Have scientists discovered a cure for BALDNESS? 

The Daily Mail, one of the feistier UK tabloid papers, recently blasted this headline across its health pages:

Have scientists discovered a cure for BALDNESS? 

Would that it were true.  According to the Huffington Post, 80 million Americans “suffer from hair loss.” For Canada, then, about 8 million people are hiding hairless heads under their hockey toques. (Full disclosure: I am one of them.)

The article is based on research conducted at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and published in Nature.  In a nutshell, Dr. Xiaowei “George” Xu, converted human skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells to produce large quantities of epithelial stem cells, which are normally found in hair follicles. When transferred to mice, the cells created “recognizable” shafts of hair.

How recognizable is debatable.  But still, this represents an advance.

However, Dr. Xu urged caution: “We have solved one major problem, the epithelial component of the hair follicle. We need to figure out a way to also make new dermal papillae cells, and no one has figured that part out yet.”

Dr. Jeff Biernaskie (pictured at right) of the University of Calgary agrees. Any cure for baldness, he says, would have to incorporate re-invigorating dermal cell function.

“The problem is the dysfunction of these inductive dermal cells. Essentially, they either start providing wrong signals or they die off or atrophy. So the therapy that needs to be championed is actually restoring the function of dermal papillae cells. You need to revitalize those cells to restore hair growth.”

Dr. Biernaskie is not focused on finding new ways for follicles to grow on the heads of bald people. His lab is trying to decode how stem cells work to rebuild skin tissue for burn survivors, or people with chronic non-healing ulcers.

The reality, however, is that any stem cell researcher who could come up with a cure for hair loss would have the cosmetics industry pounding down their door. There would be billions of dollars to be made from such discovery — enough to set a researcher up for life, allowing him or her focus on tackling problems that can’t be solved with a wig or expensive hair transplants. “To be honest, I don’t know what could happen,” says Dr. Biernaskie, “but probably you would be financially set.”

Meanwhile, he and researchers around the world are trying to figure out the dermis puzzle.

“The reason we are working on dermis is that, while it’s a key target for restoring hair growth for conditions like androgenetic alopecia (male pattern baldness), it’s also critical for maintaining proper epidermal cell function and overall skin health. So if you can understand how to regenerate the epidermis and the dermis without forming scars and potentially generating new appendages (like follicles and glands) within that skin, that’s sort of a Holy Grail.”

Until then, the search continues. As does being bald.

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04
Apr 2014
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After the fury, will STAP stem cells stand up?

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The news this week that a Japanese researcher who claimed to have discovered a much simpler way to create stem cells has been found guilty of misconduct has sent a shock wave through the international stem cell community.…

The news this week that a Japanese researcher who claimed to have discovered a much simpler way to create stem cells has been found guilty of misconduct has sent a shock wave through the international stem cell community.

More importantly, it has everyone wondering:  does this revolutionary new method of making stem cells work?

In January, NewsDesk reported on the excitement generated by reports that researchers at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, working with a team in the Boston, had transformed blood cells from newborn mice into pluripotent cells called STAP cells.

The STAP (stimulus-triggered activation of pluripotency) process stresses the cells by exposing them to trauma, low oxygen levels or mildly acidic solutions so that they revert to an embryonic-stem-cell-like state. Lead author Dr. Haruko Obokata (pictured at right) of the RIKEN Center said work was already underway to replicate the technique with human cells.

Until now there have only been two basic ways of making stem cells: harvesting them from embryos (embryonic stem cells), or genetically reprogramming adult cells to function like embryonic stem cells (induced pluripotent stem cells). To put the impact of Dr. Obokata’s discovery in context, the 2006 discovery of induced pluripotent cells earned her countryman  Dr. Shinya Yamanaka the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012.

However, on Tuesday, a RIKEN-led committee investigating six problems with the STAP findings, which were published in the high-prestige journal Nature, ruled that in two instances Dr. Obokata had intentionally manipulated data. Both dealt with images of the cells used to support the findings.

CTV carried an Associated Press report in which RIKEN Institute President Dr.  Ryoji Noyori said that, after allowing for an appeal, “disciplinary action would be taken, including calling for retraction of the suspect paper.”  Nature, meanwhile is conducting its own investigation.

For her part, Dr. Obokata has vigorously denied doing anything wrong and is appealing the decision, calling it “a misunderstanding.”

The fracas follows concerns over the use of several duplicated images in the findings as well as reports that scientists working in other labs have been unable to reproduce the same results by using the STAP process. The latter is not entirely surprising: it can take time to get a new process exactly right — especially one that is a revolutionary as what Dr. Obokata’s team came up with.

In fact, the RIKEN investigators haven’t said if STAP is scientifically valid.  Nature News reported that the committee “repeatedly fended off questions about whether the technology works and, thus, whether STAP cells actually exist,” quoting one investigator as saying, “That is beyond the scope of our investigation.”

 

Dr. Janet Rossant, Chief of Research and Senior Scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto urges caution before passing judgment.

“The team in RIKEN is still continuing to believe in the basic finding and will surely be working to revalidate the findings,” Dr. Rossant wrote to NewsDesk in an email. “We await new reports from the lab in Japan and, critically, reports from other labs worldwide as to whether this finding can be readily and robustly replicated.”

So, while the storm around the misrepresented data rages, the scientific world waits to see if STAP stands up to the test of time.

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02
Apr 2014
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Stem cell transplant MD named one of Toronto’s best

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Toronto Life has profiled 30 of “Toronto’s Best Doctors,” with about 1,000 of the city’s physicians participating in a poll to nominate the best MDs based on skills, reputation and their contributions to their field of specialty.…

Toronto Life has profiled 30 of “Toronto’s Best Doctors,” with about 1,000 of the city’s physicians participating in a poll to nominate the best MDs based on skills, reputation and their contributions to their field of specialty.

Dr. Allan R. Slomovic, the Research Director of the Cornea/External Disease Service at the Toronto Western Hospital, University Health Network (UHN), has been profiled as a top eye surgeon.

We recently featured the story of Taylor Binns, who suffered from limbal stem cell deficiency, a rare condition that occurs when the stem cells in a narrow band of tissue around the cornea break down, causing blindness and extreme pain. Dr. Slomovic performed first stem cell transplant in Canada to treat the condition and Taylor is now free of pain and back to his normal life.

Dr. Slomovic has done about eight limbal stem cell transplants in the last two years and is hoping to make UHN the leader in the field of ocular regenerative program.

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25
Mar 2014
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Tiny hearts = big deal for drug testing

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When the subject of using stem cells to treat disease comes up, most of us have an image of doctors injecting or infusing these building-block cells into a patient to stimulate the repair of their traumatized tissue or dysfunctional organs.…

When the subject of using stem cells to treat disease comes up, most of us have an image of doctors injecting or infusing these building-block cells into a patient to stimulate the repair of their traumatized tissue or dysfunctional organs.

We’ve written about this approach several times in this space — most recently reporting on a clinical trial to test stem cells in spinal cord injury.  We also reported on a 100-participant study led by Dr. Duncan Stewart at the Ottawa Health Research Institute infusing genetically enhanced blood stem cells into damaged hearts to generate healthy tissue, minimize scarring and prevent heart failure.

Those kinds of studies are called in vivo, meaning “within the living.” But researchers are also opening up entirely different front in the war on disease: using stem cells to create “models” of diseased tissue or organs for testing drugs. Called in vitro (literally, “within the glass” to signify experiments carried out in a Petri dish or test tube), these studies essentially set up a disease straw man for a potential therapy to knock down.

There are advantages to this approach: it skips the pre-clinical animal testing stage that can be a labour-intensive, time-consuming exercise. Imagine the frustration of spending months testing a new drug on rats only to find it’s a no-go. Also, what can show great promise in testing with genetically engineered, immuno-suppressed rats often doesn’t translate into something that will work on real, live, normal human beings.

One of the more promising examples of this kind of work is underway at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering and the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine. Researchers there have developed the first-ever method for creating living, three-dimensional human heart tissue that behaves just like the one pumping blood through your body as you read this. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science recently and, so far, have been picked up by 10 media outlets.

“It means basically having hundreds of small versions or models of hearts in one dish, which we can test drugs on to determine which one actually has positive effects,” explains Nimalan Thavandiran, a PhD student in the labs of Drs. Peter Zandstra and Milica Radisic, and lead author of the study.

The ultimate goal, he says, is to create a heart micro tissue that is healthy and then “artificially apply an insult to it” to make it more like a diseased heart. These damaged micro hearts can then be treated with drugs — some that are already on the market for treating other conditions — to see which ones are helpful.

The micro heart tissue can also do service to test the cardio-toxicity of drugs used to treat other conditions. “Often times, a drug to treat cancer will make it to the later phases of a clinical trial and then fail because of side effects on either liver or the heart. So this is why it is important to have human cell-based models, like cardiac or liver models to see early on if these drugs have any adverse effects. And if they do, you can do two things: you can either scrap the drug or you can actually figure out how to molecularly modify it to prevent the toxic effect.”

In the extremely expensive world of drug testing, where it can take hundreds of millions of dollars and many years to test a new drug, having a stem cell-derived micro tissue model represents a huge saving in time, money and resources that could be better spent elsewhere. That’s why many labs across the globe are working to create these models.

With the publication of their paper, Nimalan Thavandiran and his colleagues have shown how to significantly improve the formula for creating stem cell-derived cardiac tissue that behaves like more mature heart tissue. They have come closer than anyone to getting the mix right, factoring in the electrical and mechanical stimulation a heart experiences.

“The heart is consistently both being filled with blood and pumping blood, and so there is a constant mechanical force,” he says. “At the same time, the heart is constantly receiving electrical signals which help maintain synchronicity. All this is very difficult to recreate in a dish.”

They still have further to go, he says. “The ultimate goal is to be able to recreate a perfect micro environment for the heart so that we have an ideal model to screen drugs with.” But they are closing in on what could soon emerge as an important step in drug-testing.

“Until recently, researchers didn’t have the right micro fabrication techniques, the right materials, differentiation protocols, the right understanding of what co-factors are involved with these stem cell-derived heart cells. Now we have a relatively good understanding of all of these things.  It’s just the matter of putting it all together.”

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Mar 2014
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ARM

The United States takes a step forward in regenerative medicine

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The United States has moved a step forward toward the creation of a national strategy to support research in regenerative medicine.…

The United States has moved a step forward toward the creation of a national strategy to support research in regenerative medicine.

On March 13, The Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM) announced the introduction of the Regenerative Medicine Promotion Act of 2014.

The ARM is a global advocacy organization and the U.S. national voice for promotion of legislative, regulatory and reimbursement initiatives to accelerate the development of regenerative medicine technologies.

The new bill, supported by the U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Mark Kirk, seeks to advance research in regenerative medicine in the United States.

“Regenerative medicine gives priceless hope to millions of Americans who are suffering from life-threatening or debilitating conditions,” says Senator Boxer in the Senate Press Release.

“As a stroke survivor, I know first hand the importance of medical research and therapy,” adds Senator Kirk.

Regenerative medicine has the potential of regenerating tissues and organs by using techniques that will replace damaged tissues or organs with healthy ones. Many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, renal failure and osteoporosis may one day be cured through regenerative medicine.

“Regenerative medicine represents the single most promising new approach to mitigating the humans and economic costs of disease, and changing the course of human health,” says Michael Werner, Executive Director of ARM, in the official ARM press release.

ARM contends that further development of the research in regenerative medicine requires a strong federally-directed initiative. It calls for a cohesive governmental policy and funding, and collaboration among scientists, so that regenerative medicine can one day become the standard of care.

The proposed legislation would create a Regenerative Medicine Coordinating Council within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The Council, which will include the Cabinet secretaries, agency heads, researchers and other experts and advocates will work on the development of a national strategy for regenerative medicine and identify policy priorities. In addition, the U.S. Government Accountability Office will issue a detailed report on the undergoing federal programs in the field of regenerative medicine.

“A coordinated effort, such as the one outlined in the bill introduced today, will allow us to advance toward innovative, life-saving therapies and create the regulatory infrastructure necessary to encourage private investment in promising regenerative medicine research,” says Morrie Ruffin, Managing Director of ARM, in the ARM press release.

To see the progress made in the development of a Canadian National Stem Cell Strategy click here.

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13
Mar 2014
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unproven stem cell treatments booklet

Unproven stem cell therapies: all you need to know

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Recently we wrote about a workshop on unproven stem cells treatments that featured Prof. Timothy Caulfield, a member of our Foundation’s Science Leadership Council.…

Recently we wrote about a workshop on unproven stem cells treatments that featured Prof. Timothy Caulfield, a member of our Foundation’s Science Leadership Council. Unproven stem cells treatments are scientifically untested, lack regulatory or ethics approval and may lead to serious health consequences.

In order to increase public awareness, the University of Alberta’s Prof. Caulfield and Dr. Zubin Master of Albany Medical College, have developed a booklet called “What you need to know about stem cell therapies.”

The booklet, sponsored by Stem Cell Network, can be found here.

“Most stem cell therapies are still considered research and are a long way from the clinic,” write the authors.

The process of translation from scientific knowledge to the approval of a treatment, or clinical translation, takes several steps. It starts with preclinical research, with scientists using stem cells on animals to show that the treatment is safe and effective.

After a review from independent scientists, or peer review, the research undergoes ethics approval to be tested on humans. With approval, clinical research involving humans, begins, starting at Phase 1 to determine whether the treatment is safe, to Phase 4, which monitors the effectiveness of a treatment and its side effects after it is on the market.

Unproven stem cells therapies have not been properly tested and proven to be safe and effective.

According to Prof. Caulfield and Dr. Master, clinics offering unproven treatments share similar characteristics: They don’t provide scientific evidence of the effectiveness of a treatment and they emphasize its benefits without completely explaining its risks. Instead of scientific publications, they use patient testimonials to show the effectiveness of a therapy. Finally, the costs associated with unproven treatments are often high, while legitimate clinical trials are free.

Patients undergoing unproven stem cell therapies may develop serious health problems, as their condition may worsen, or they may require additional treatments. Undergoing an unproven treatment can also disqualify a patient for enrolment in legitimate stem cell trials.

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04
Mar 2014
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Till & McCulloch take a Star turn

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To mark the Toronto’s 180th birthday this week, the Toronto Star has offered its readers 180 portraits of “the people who helped shape the city” from its Muddy York beginnings to its current status as one the world’s great centres.…

To mark the Toronto’s 180th birthday this week, the Toronto Star has offered its readers 180 portraits of “the people who helped shape the city” from its Muddy York beginnings to its current status as one the world’s great centres.

The list contains most of those you would expect — Father of Confederation George Brown, jazz great Oscar Peterson and business tycoon Kenneth Thomson — and a few you wouldn’t, including “Call In The Army” Mayor Mel Lastman, bank robber Edwin Alonzo Boyd and the Maple Leafs former owner and convicted fraudster Harold Ballard.

But also included are Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch, lauded as “the fathers of stem cell research” and as mentors to “generations of scientists in stem cell research, a field that promises to transform medical treatment and health care.”

Despite the enormity of their achievements, Till & McCulloch are virtually unknown across Canada. When CBC ran its Greatest Canadian competition 10 years ago, the two men who discovered stem cells did not even crack the top 100. (No. 1 was Tommy Douglas, while hockey commentator Don Cherry placed seventh.) And there is nothing — no public building, no elementary school, no street, not so much as a plaque — honouring Till & McCulloch in the city where they did their remarkable research.

Also on the Star list under the category of Trailblazers and Innovators is Dr. Tak Mak, the medical scientist who discovered the T-Cell receptor. Dr. Mak is one of those who was mentored by Till and McCulloch and has gone on record as saying McCulloch “was behind me when the rest of the world thought I was crazy.” One of the world’s leading cancer researchers, Dr. Mak has been featured in this space for his recent foray into developing a “sharpshooter” drug to attack tumours.

The Star recognition is a great first step, an indication that the public is finally beginning to appreciate these two medical research giants. Now, if the powers that be could be convinced to rechristen Sherbourne Street, where their original the Ontario Cancer Institute and Princess Margaret Hospital lab was located, as Till & McCulloch Way, that would really be something.

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21
Feb 2014
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The world is no longer a dark and painful place

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Taylor Binns’ transformation from blindness to “as close to 20/20 as can be with corrective lenses” may seem like story book stuff, but more than three years after his limbal stem cell transplant, he continues to write new chapters.…

Taylor Binns’ transformation from blindness to “as close to 20/20 as can be with corrective lenses” may seem like story book stuff, but more than three years after his limbal stem cell transplant, he continues to write new chapters.

“I am working for a consulting firm, but I am also in a process of getting into medical school,” says the 26-year-old. “The hope is that within a year-and-a-half I will be in medical school somewhere.”

He is also back on the road, driving a car. Back playing his beloved sport of rugby.  And free of the piercing pain that staggered him for almost four years while he was working on his commerce degree at Queen’s University in Kingston.

“It was excruciating,” says Taylor, who grew up in Orillia, Ontario. “Imagine the worst time you ever had with something in your eye. And there was a constant burning sensation.”

Limbal stem cell deficiency (LSCD), a rare condition that occurs when the stem cells in a narrow band of tissue around the cornea break down, produced Taylor’s blindness and eye agony.  Common causes are chemical damage or burns, but sometimes the condition is congenital.  Contact lenses, which Taylor wore, have also been implicated.

As the video above dramatically shows, it was limbal stem cells harvested from his sister Tori that returned Taylor’s sight and banished his pain. Beyond undergoing the procedure, donating her cells posed no problems for Tori. “She’s doing great,” says Taylor. “She’s living in Vancouver where she does hair and makeup for movies and TV shows.”

Taylor, whose LSCD struck during a summer volunteer work stint in Haiti, can’t say enough about Dr Allan R. Slomovic, who performed his four operations at Toronto Western Hospital, beginning in November of 2010. “I was sent to see many doctors around North America and there is no one I would recommend more than him. Professionally and personally, he’s the best.”

Dr. Slomovic, who has done about eight limbal stem cell transplants in the last two years,   says the success rate has been good.  “But not everyone’s like Taylor. He was very fortunate: when we removed the scar tissue from his cornea, the underlying cornea itself was healthy.”

Dr. Slomovic credits Dr. Edward Cole and the staff at University Health Network’s Renal Transplant Program for making limbal stem cell transplants such a success. Their experience in arranging living and deceased donor kidney transplants gives them the expertise to ensure the most compatible donor is found and that the recipient is put on the most appropriate immunosuppression regime after receiving the donated cells.  “It’s a team effort,” says Dr. Slomovic.

As for Taylor, the world is no longer a dark and painful place.  His checkups are down to one every six months. Other than “a little bit” of immunosuppressant drugs, he is no longer on medication.

(For more on stem cells and eye diseases click here.)

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13
Feb 2014
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Our gold medal stem cell scientists

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While Canada’s athletes continue to pile up medals at the Winter Olympics in Sochi and prove their prowess on ice and snow, our stem cell scientists are demonstrating that they too are the best in the world.…

While Canada’s athletes continue to pile up medals at the Winter Olympics in Sochi and prove their prowess on ice and snow, our stem cell scientists are demonstrating that they too are the best in the world.

On the same day that 1,000-metre speed skater Denny Morrison came off the bench (courtesy of team mate Gilmore Junio surrendering his spot) to win silver, Dr. John Dick’s team at the University Health Network in Toronto showed the world what the origins of leukemia look like, publishing their findings in the prestigious journal Nature. That news comes hard on the heels of fellow UHN researcher Dr. Gordon Keller’s discovery of a key regulator that controls the formation of blood-forming stem cells, published in the top-tier Cell.

Both papers represent advances in how we understand and may someday treat disease. Without wanting to sound over-the-top patriotic, both prove that, as a nation, we continue to do outstanding work in the field founded by two Canadians — Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch — more than 50 years ago.

Essentially, Dr. Dick has identified a “pre-leukemic stem cell” that appears to initiate acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and, because chemotherapy doesn’t eradicate it, allows the disease to come back. Readers of this blog will recall that Dr. Dick was the first in the world to identify cancer stem cells. He proved that just as stem cells produce millions of specialized cells to build and repair tissues and organs (while also renewing themselves), cancer stem cells drive the production of millions of tumour cells (while also replicating themselves).

“What we found is the first normal cell, the cell of origin, that actually sets off the of cascade events, which is going to ultimately lead to leukemia,” Dr. Dick explains in the UHN video above. “So, one of the direct implications and benefits of our findings is that we should be able to detect leukemia before it arises. And, by identifying patients like that earlier, we should be able to follow them and introduce therapy an earlier stage.”

It should be pointed out that this is very early-stage work. To have application in cancer prevention or care, scientists must find a drug that can target a mutation in the gene called DNMT3 that causes these pre-leukemic stem cells to develop. Such a drug would have to be rigorously tested, something that could take years. But it’s still a very important advance.

“What’s John’s given us is something to go after before the disease gets out of hand,” says Dr. Mick Bhatia, Director of the McMaster Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Research Institute. “That’s a huge gift. It’s like stories about the unicorn. He has identified it, now we have to figure out how to capture it. What we have to grapple with is: ‘Are these pre-leukemic cells targetable?’ ‘Can you diagnose them?’ and ‘Can you shut them down before they become leukemic?'”

In his discovery, Dr. Keller, Director of the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine, identified a key regulator controlling the formation of blood-forming stem cells in the early embryo. He focused on retinoic acid, which is produced from vitamin A and is vital in growth. His team demonstrated that the retinoic acid signalling pathway is critical to making blood-forming stem cells. In experiments with mice, the researchers found that blocking the pathway blocked the formation of blood-making stem cells. Activating it pathway set off an upsurge of blood-forming stem cells.

“Our findings have identified a critical regulator for directing pluripotent stem cells to make blood-forming stem cells, bringing us one step closer to our goal of developing a new and unlimited source of these stem cells for transplantation for the treatment of different blood cell diseases,” says Dr. Keller in Medical News Today.

This discovery is also early-stage work, but also very important, says Dr. Bhatia.

“He is capturing a pathway that is critical for when the first blood stem cell is born and how it makes copies of itself — the self-renewal process. That is going to be instrumental in how we move forward clinically.”

While neither finding is a cure for cancer, both are important steps forward on the path to get there. To push the Olympics analogy a bit further, this is like winning a preliminary competition that allows you compete in the medal round.

Except this is not a game and in this medal round, the prize is much more precious than gold.

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11
Feb 2014
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Ms-Bobbe-Wood

Why health research is a solid investment

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Heart disease and stroke are two of the leading causes of death, hospitalization and prescription drug use in Canada.

While biomedical research has helped Canadians live healthier and longer lives, “it still has a long way to go,” according to Bobbe Wood, President of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.…

Heart disease and stroke are two of the leading causes of death, hospitalization and prescription drug use in Canada.

While biomedical research has helped Canadians live healthier and longer lives, “it still has a long way to go,” according to Bobbe Wood, President of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. (Click here to read our NewsDesk article on a clinical trial using enhanced blood stem cells to repair heart damage.)

In the current edition of Inside Policy, Ms. Wood, a participant at the Health Charities Forum for a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy, highlights the importance and benefits of investing in cardiovascular research.

“Biomedical research cannot be turned on and off on a whim … it requires an infrastructure built over many years,” she writes. “A long-term investment in cardiovascular research is fundamental to ensure better and longer lives for Canadians, but is also one of the best economic investments we can make as a society,” adds Ms. Wood.

Investments in cardiovascular research generate a return of 21% in terms of benefits to the Canadian economy, an amount that is “enough to warm the heart of even the coldest banker or investor,” says Ms. Wood in the article.

She says that biomedical research not only makes us healthier, but it also improves our standard of living by creating jobs and generating significant payback.

With a strong education system and vibrant research and clinical communities, “Canada has all the ingredients to make biomedical research an important economic sector, while at the same time improving our health, our lives and overall economy,” says Ms. Wood.

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07
Feb 2014
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The doctors are in

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For a Canadian stem cell strategy to succeed it must make sense to the people who work in the front lines of health care.…

For a Canadian stem cell strategy to succeed it must make sense to the people who work in the front lines of health care. That’s why many of Canada’s most respected medical practitioners gathered in Toronto yesterday to discuss the development of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy.

The Clinician Forum, which included such notable clinician/researchers as Dr. Hans Messner (who was featured in our recent news article) from Toronto, who pioneered stem cell bone marrow transplants in the early 1970s; Dr. Ivar Mendez, the Unified Head of Surgery of the Province of Saskatchewan, and Dr. Duncan Stewart, CEO and Scientific Director of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, was the latest event in a series of national stakeholder consultations. Previous sessions have brought together the country’s top researchers, executives from Canada’s major health charities, biotech leaders and industry experts.

“The clinic is really where the rubber hits the road in terms of health care delivery,” says James Price, President and CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, which is championing the Campaign for a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy. “It’s crucial to hear what the clinicians have to say about how to boost clinical trials and speed up the translation of stem cell research to new therapies as quickly and safely as possible..”

Dr. Denis Claude Roy, Scientific Director of Montréal’s Centre de Recherche De L’Hôpital Maisonneuve Rosemont, and a member of the Joint Strategy Working Group, helped organize the forum to discuss the Strategy, which he sees as increasingly important in finding new treatments. “We have learned to harness the potential of stem cells and are now building on these major developments,” says Dr. Roy. “Tissue repair and even cures are now within reach for a multitude of diseases.”

The Clinician Forum, which also included officials from Health Canada who are responsible for the regulatory framework for clinical research, focused on what actions can be taken to advance clinical research and transform stem cell discoveries into improved health outcomes for patients.

The Participants:

François Auger

Director, Laboratoire d’Organogénèse Expérimental, Full Professor, Surgery Department, Faculty of Medicine, Université Laval, Québec, QC

Peter Ganz

Director, Biologics & Genetic Therapies Directorate, Health Canada, Ottawa, ON

Lucie Germain

Scientific Director, Laboratoire d’Organogénèse Expérimental, Professor, Department of Surgery and Associate Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, Faculty of Medicine, Université Laval, Québec, QC

Liz Anne Gillham-Eisen

Acting Director, Office of Policy and International Collaboration, Biologics and Genetic Therapies Directorate, Health Canada, Ottawa, ON

Donna Hogge

Senior Scientist, Terry Fox Laboratory, Clinical Professor, Medicine, University of British Columbia, Member, Leukemia Bone Marrow Transplant Program of BC, Vancouver, BC.

Dominique Johnson

Director, Montréal Health Innovations Coordinating Center, a Division of the Montréal Heart Institute, Montréal, QC

Armand Keating

Director, Cell Therapy Program and Philip S. Orsino Facility for Cell Therapy, Princess Margaret Hospital/Ontario Cancer Institute, Senior Scientist, Division of Experimental Therapeutics, Toronto General Research Institute, University Health Network, Director, Division of Hematology, Department of Medicine; Epstein Chair in Cell Therapy and Transplantation, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON

Michael May

Chief Executive Officer, Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, Toronto, ON

Jeffrey Medin

Senior Scientist, Ontario Cancer Institute, Senior Scientist, Toronto Western Research Institute, Toronto, ON

Ivar Mendez

Fred H. Wigmore Professor of Surgery, University of Saskatchewan and Unified Head of Surgery for the Province of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK

Hans Messner

Professor of Medicine, University of Toronto, University Health Network, Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto, ON

Nicolas Noiseux

Cardiac surgeon, Associate Professor of Surgery, Director of Research Cardiovascular Surgery, Hôtel-Dieu du Centre hospitalier de l’université de Montréal, Montréal, QC

James Price

President & Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, Ottawa, ON

Michael Rosu-Myles

Associate Director, Centre for Biologics Evaluationm, Senior Research Scientist, Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Biologics and Genetic Therapies Directorate, Health Canada, Ottawa, ON

Denis Claude Roy

Director, Cellular Therapy Laboratory, Scientific Director, Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont. Professor at the University of Montréal, Montréal, QC

Michael Rudnicki

Senior Scientist and Director of the Regenerative Medicine Program and the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Professor, Department of Medicine and Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa, Scientific Director, Stem Cell Network, Ottawa, ON

Khalid Sabihuddin

Program Lead, HUB Health Research Solutions, St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto, ON

Duncan Stewart

CEO & Scientific Director and Senior Scientist in the Regenerative Medicine Program and Evelyne and Rowell Laishley Chair, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Vice-President, Research, The Ottawa Hospital, Professor, Department of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON

Sowmya Viswanathan

Associate Director Cell Therapy Program, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Toronto, ON

Donna Wall

Professor, Pediatrics and Child Health, Immunology, and Internal Medicine, Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, Transplantation, Director, Manitoba Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, CancerCare Manitoba, University of Manitoba. Winnipeg, MB

Philip Welford

Executive Director, Stem Cell Network, Ottawa, ON

Lori West

Professor of Pediatrics, Surgery and Immunology, Director, Canadian National Transplant Research Program, Director (Acting) and Research Director, Alberta Transplant Institute, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB

David Young

Chair, Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization, Chief Executive Officer, Actium Research Inc., Toronto, ON

Peter Zandstra

Scientific Director, Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, Professor, Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON

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Feb 2014
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Rob and Teneille McConnell on their wedding day in June

Stem cells free Saskatchewan man from Crohn’s

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Rob McConnell’s Crohn’s disease struck about 13 years ago, when he was 20. The Elrose, Saskatchewan farm manager believes the stress of his father’s death had a lot to do with the onset of the debilitating disease — and how hard it hit him.…

Rob McConnell’s Crohn’s disease struck about 13 years ago, when he was 20. The Elrose, Saskatchewan farm manager believes the stress of his father’s death had a lot to do with the onset of the debilitating disease — and how hard it hit him.

The six-footer’s weight dropped to 95 pounds, the result of his decreased appetite, abdominal pain and chronic diarrhea that sent him to the toilet at least a dozen times a day.  He underwent more operations than he can remember to remove diseased pieces of his intestines, and when he wasn’t in hospital he “was on enough steroids and pain killers to kill a small horse.”

Crohn’s disease and a related condition called ulcerative colitis occur when the body’s immune system reacts to genetic and/or environmental triggers by attacking the digestive tract. The two conditions are commonly referred to as Inflammatory Bowel Disease or IBD. Canada has one of the highest incidences of IBD in the world, with one in about 150 — about 230,000 Canadians — affected.  (For a lively and informative overview of IBD, check out this video at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada site.)

Rob tried every drug and treatment available to combat his Crohn’s.  They would work for a while. Some, especially the steroids, came with severe side-effects (moon-shaped face, hair loss, sore joints and brittle bones).  But the Crohn’s kept coming back.

“I was going downhill quickly,” says Rob. “I was at the hospital all the time and my girlfriend Teneille would go home and go online looking for other options, especially information about stem cell transplants. She found a blog by Billy Tytaneck.”

In 2008, Billy Tytaneck was able to avoid radical surgery to remove much of his bowel when Dr. Harry Atkins of the Ottawa General Hospital performed a stem cell bone marrow transplant to rebuild his immune system. Dr. Atkins has been featured in this space for his success in treating patients with Multiple Sclerosis, as well as Stiff Person Syndrome and neuromyelitis optica.

Teneille wrote to Dr. Atkins, who asked her to send along Rob’s medical records. “About a week later he responded and told me: ‘You know what? I think you might be a candidate.’  It was late February 2012 when I went to Ottawa for my consultation and right away I had a great connection with Dr. Atkins, who sat me down and went through the whole procedure.”

Three months later, Rob was back in Ottawa for his “Autologous Peripheral Stem Cell Transplant” using stem cells that were extracted from his blood, then purified and fortified. After undergoing extreme chemotherapy to annihilate his diseased immune system, Rob was given back the robust stem cells to rebuild a new immune system.

He sailed through the treatment that others have found excruciating. “I took the chemo relatively well. There was some nausea and I had other things that bothered me, but I didn’t get the whole super illness.”

After staying in Ottawa for follow-up treatments and infection monitoring, Rob went back to Saskatchewan in the fall where, a year-and-a-half later, the Crohn’s is in remission and he feels fine. No more frequent trips to the bathroom. No more cramps. No more weight loss: he’s up to 161 pounds now, his heaviest ever. He no longer takes any medication.

While it is still too early to say whether Rob’s Crohn’s is cured — the condition is known to wax and wane — so far so good.  “I eat very well,” says Rob. “Things that used to bother me don’t bother me anymore. There have been no attacks. I used to have a pain twice an hour or more. It has been a long while since I had one.”

And his quality of life has vastly improved.  “It is just amazing. I started another business. Teneille and I got married at the end of June. I’m doing so much more and feeling so much better.  I really don’t think I would be on this side of the grass if I didn’t get that treatment.”

(Editor’s Note: CNN reports on Dr. Atkins and his work with Stiff Person Syndrome patients.)

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Feb 2014
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Unproven treatments: a big challenge for the stem cell community

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“Many challenges surround stem cell research, but the number one issue as perceived by stem cell community is the marketing and selling of unproven stem cell therapies,” says Prof.

“Many challenges surround stem cell research, but the number one issue as perceived by stem cell community is the marketing and selling of unproven stem cell therapies,” says Prof. Timothy Caulfied.

A Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, Prof. Caulfield addressed the problem at a recent workshop on Stem Cell Therapies: Opportunities for Assuring the Quality and Safety of Unregulated Clinical Offerings, organized by U.S. Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Science.

Many clinics that look perfectly legitimate on the Web, offer stem cell treatments for everything, without any clinical-based evidence.
“Any time there is an exciting scientific development, people use it to profit,” says Prof. Caulfield in the video. “I call it Scienceploitation,” he adds.

The increase in unproven stem cell treatments is a global phenomenon.”The numbers of desperate patients using these clinics worldwide are big,” says Prof. Caulfield, who is a member of Canadian Stem Cell Foundation’s Science Leadership Council. “And the harm is big, too. Health risks for patients, high costs of procedures and undermined public trust challenge the whole field of stem cell research.”

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30
Jan 2014
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Surprise: A whole new way to make stem cells

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News this week that Japanese and American scientists have found a third way to make pluripotent stem cells — a process that’s far simpler, faster and cheaper — is being heralded by some as a game-changing development in regenerative medicine.…

News this week that Japanese and American scientists have found a third way to make pluripotent stem cells — a process that’s far simpler, faster and cheaper — is being heralded by some as a game-changing development in regenerative medicine. Others say it may just be “a lab curiosity.”

Until now, there have been two main ways to create stem cells that are pluripotent (capable of producing any cell the body needs):

• harvesting them from embryos (embryonic stem cells), or
• reprogramming adult cells to function like embryonic stem cells (induced pluripotent stem cells).

Making embryonic stem cells has not been without controversy. And because creating induced pluripotent stem cells initially involved genetically altering things, there were concerns they could potentially cause tumours. While that problem apparently has been solved, the procedure is still a complex and costly one.

Now there is a third way — although, so far, it has only been done in animals. Researchers at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan and Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in the United States transformed blood cells from newborn mice into pluripotent cells called STAP cells. The technique involves stressing the cells by exposing them to trauma, low oxygen levels or mildly acidic solutions. Within days, the cells revert to an embryonic-stem-cell-like state. (A Boston Globe graphic illustrates the process beautifully. See it here.)

“It’s very simple to do,” Dr. Charles Vacanti of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told the Associated Press after the two papers were published online Wednesday in Nature. “I think you could do this actually in a college lab.” Dr. Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center, said researchers are already at work to see if the technique can be replicated with human cells.

So, what to make of these new stem cells?

Dr. Chris Mason, chair of regenerative medicine bioprocessing at University College London, told Reuters that the approach was “the most simple, lowest-cost and quickest method” to generate pluripotent cells from mature cells. “If it works in man, this could be the game-changer that ultimately makes a wide range of cell therapies available using the patient’s own cells as starting material – the age of personalized medicine would have finally arrived.”

Others are more guarded. “Until you show it works in humans, it’s hard to know what the application is going to be,” the University of California’s Dr. William Lowry told AP. “For now, the question of whether it’s a lab curiosity or a big medical benefit; that’s still up in the air.”

To make sense of STAP, NewsDesk asked Dr. Janet Rossant (pictured above), Chief of Research and Senior Scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children for her assessment of this remarkable development.

“I don’t think it’s a game-changer,” says Dr. Rossant, President of the International Society for Stem Cell Research and one of the world’s leading embryonic stem cells scientists.  “A game-changer means we’re all going to suddenly stop what we’re doing and do something else. It’s a surprising and intriguing observation, suggesting that somehow there is an intrinsic pluripotency program that is sitting there, waiting to be revealed if we stress the cells.”

She describes this as “one of those findings where you go, ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting.’ Of course, this is all mouse, so there is a need for further replication by other groups and further explanation of what the mechanism is. And, of course, extension to the human situation if this is going to have practical relevance. As it stands, I don’t see people are suddenly going to stop making induced pluripotent stem cells by the standard route. Because these cells, whatever they are, are not exactly identical to embryonic stem cells.”

The really important thing, according to Dr. Rossant, is that this discovery shows there “are multiple states of pluripotency out there” to be investigated. “We need to understand more about what we mean by the pluripotent state and whether it is a state that (cells) can fall back into.”

The true test of induced pluripotent stem cells, which were discovered in 2006 and earned Japan’s Dr. Shinya Yamanaka a Nobel Prize, was the fact other labs around the world could replicate the results.  That will now be the challenge for STAP cells.

“It was a very surprising, intriguing result. It’s come from a reputable laboratory — RIKEN is one of the top developmental biology groups in the world,” says Dr. Rossant, who is a member of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation’s Science Leadership Council.

“The question will be, ‘Is this a truly robust way of generating pluripotent stem cells?’ And only time will tell.”

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Jan 2014
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Spinal cord study: ‘This is no flash in the pan’

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Recently we blogged about a media report on a first-of-its kind North American study to test using neural stem cells to treat spinal cord injury (See Hope not hype).

Recently we blogged about a media report on a first-of-its kind North American study to test using neural stem cells to treat spinal cord injury (See Hope not hype). The small, Phase 1 clinical trial, sponsored by StemCells, Inc.  of California, is underway in Calgary — where the first patient has received his transplant — and Toronto. NewsDesk subsequently asked Dr. Michael Fehlings, head of the spinal program at Toronto Western Hospital and the lead investigator for the trial at the University of Toronto, to share his thoughts on the experimental treatment. In this edited transcript of the conversation, he describes the excitement at seeing the trial take place here in Canada, addresses ethical concerns and stresses the importance of managing patients’ expectations.  

Q: Is this the first time that this kind of thing has been done in North America?

A: Not exactly. This is the first the first trial with adult neural stem cells in spinal cord injury in North America. But Geron, which is another California-based company, got approval to use stem cells derived from embryonic stem cells and they injected four patients with traumatic spinal cord injury in the last couple of years. Then the company stopped the trial for financial reasons.

There has been a trial with neural stem cells in patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). That is a different company and they have completed the Phase 1 trial. So there is some precedent in the ALS field.

StemCells, Inc. has ventured into early phase human clinical trials in pediatric neurodevelopmental conditions. They did a small Phase 1 study in children with neurodevelopmental condition called neuronal ceroid lipofuscinosis and a Phase 1 clinical trial in children with a demyelinating condition called Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease.

But this is the first trial of its kind using adult neural stem cells. We have found very convincing evidence for regeneration of the injured spinal cord injury and, particularly, we found that the neural stem cells are effective in remyelinating residual neurons in the host spinal cord.

This trial represents an important breakthrough in Canada as well, because it is the first of its kind (here). It does reflect an acceptance by Health Canada and will provide impetus for accelerating research at the pre-clinical level. Because there are many questions that will emerge out of the clinical arena that cannot be answered in a clinic. These will be addressed in pre-clinical laboratories and we will hopefully continue to move forward into the clinical pathways.

Q: I was impressed how CTV handled the report. They didn’t create the impression that people were going to jump out their wheelchairs with this.

A: I think it is a fair statement. I think that what this type of trial does is calibrate the discussion. We have moved on from the types of dramatic reports we heard with the so called “medical tourism” — dramatic claims that raise hope but are not supported by evidence. Here, the level of rigour to get a trial like this approved by Health Canada is extremely high.  I think for us it is really important and it is very exciting for the stem cell community because it shows that Canada is on the map. I think it is very noteworthy that this American company has chosen Canada as their entry to the North American platform.

Q: As you said, it is reassuring to Canadians that the work is being done here, that they don’t have to go everywhere and pay big dollars for suspect treatments.

A: Exactly. We are treating our own citizens and patients are not being charged anything. This is not being done for profit and we are making no claims, nothing but the fact that this is an exciting experimental treatment. It’s exciting, it’s hopeful, but we also have to be realistic. Ultimately, we are trying to determine what the effects of these cells are. We don’t know if the cells will work. We hope they will show an effect.

Q: These are stem cells derived from fetal tissue. Any concern about that? *

A: Anything in the arena of stem cells can potentially generate ethical questions for individuals. Whether we deal with embryonic stem cells, stem cells from fetal tissue, induced pluripotent stem cells. My response would be that the discussion is undertaken with the individuals with spinal cord issues and with their families, so they are aware what the source of the tissue is and if they have ethical concerns, their concerns are respected. On the other hand, it needs to be respected that the people have the right to have choice.

In terms of the source, I view this as a kind of the first step. Ultimately my hope would be that we could use our patient’s own cells. I would say that while I respect that there might be a minority of individuals who might express concerns, the cells come from tissue that otherwise would have been discarded. And because they are adult cells, the risk for forming a cancer or teratoma is extremely remote.

Q: Are you concerned that you might be swamped by people with traumatic spinal cord injury who want to take part? 

A: We are getting a lot of emails and a lot of requests. Most of the individuals who contact us are not candidates. It is a challenge to manage that. We anticipated that. We are trying to manage people’s expectations. We have a long-term commitment to this. This is no short term flash in the pan. It is a long-term strategy and commitment. We want to do things right, in a very responsible manner. We are trying to help people with spinal cord injury and to do the right thing.

* Editor’s Note: Stem cell research in Canada is conducted in accordance with the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Updated Guidelines for Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Research and the Assisted Human Reproduction Act. For a more detailed explanation, click here.

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Jan 2014
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‘An amazing time’

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“It is an amazing time to be a stem cell scientist,” says Dr. Janet Rossant, Chief of Research and Senior Scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and one of the members of the Foundation’s Science Leadership Council.…

“It is an amazing time to be a stem cell scientist,” says Dr. Janet Rossant, Chief of Research and Senior Scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and one of the members of the Foundation’s Science Leadership Council.

Dr. Rossant is an internationally recognized expert in developmental biology and the President of International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR). In her recent video, she addressed the international stem cell community to underline the importance of global partnerships.

With many questions to be answered in the future, stem cell scientists worldwide “are on the course of taking stem cells and turning them into new therapies to treat some of the major chronic diseases, such as Parkinson’s or diabetes,” she says.

In order to achieve this, stem cell scientists, bio engineers, clinicians and regulators should all work together. “Come join us and make a difference,” says Dr. Rossant.

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Jan 2014
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Tina Ceroni on Canada AM: ‘I have a whole new lease on life’

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As we reported yesterday, Tina Ceroni, with the help of Dr. Harry Atkins, shared her story with Beverly Thomson today on Canada AM.…

As we reported yesterday, Tina Ceroni, with the help of Dr. Harry Atkins, shared her story with Beverly Thomson today on Canada AM.

Tina is an accomplished athlete and fitness trainer who was diagnosed with Stiff Person Syndrome (SPS), a rare autoimmune disease that affects one in a million people.

In her mid-20’s Tina started experiencing mild spasms and rigidity in her legs. She always assumed they were due to her training regime. She was eventually diagnosed SPS. The contractions and spasms became so severe that she required frequent trips to the emergency ward to save her life.

In April 2011, Tina received a stem cell transplant at Ottawa General Hospital.

The procedure performed by Dr. Atkins is very intense. Strong doses of chemotherapy “kill” the immune system in order to create a new disease-free immune system seeded by stem cells.

“There are risks of severe organ failure or even death,” Dr. Atkins explained on the program.

“It is a challenging process and it takes time to recover from something like that,” added Tina.

Today Tina is completely symptom free. “There are no words to describe how amazing I feel now. I have a whole new lease on life and no limitations on what I can do.”

Click here to watch the interview.

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22
Jan 2014
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Canada AM to broadcast the Tina Ceroni story

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Back in December 2013 we told the story of Tina Ceroni, an accomplished athlete and personal trainer who was diagnosed with Stiff Person Syndrome.…

Back in December 2013 we told the story of Tina Ceroni, an accomplished athlete and personal trainer who was diagnosed with Stiff Person Syndrome. The extremely rare neurological disorder triggered a series of episodic attacks during which her muscles would tighten mercilessly — putting her life at risk.

Tina underwent stem cell transplant treatment at Ottawa General Hospital under the care of Dr. Harry Atkins in April 2011. She is now back running and cycling and has resumed her career as a personal trainer.

Tina is scheduled to share her story, with help from Dr. Atkins, on CTV’s Canada AM tomorrow morning at 8:05. Catch it live or watch for a link to it to appear here soon.

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21
Jan 2014
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Do organ donor policies need a rethink?

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Each of us could be a potential organ or tissue donor and save the lives of those in need of a transplant.…

Each of us could be a potential organ or tissue donor and save the lives of those in need of a transplant. For example, stem cells contained in bone marrow could help in treating people with blood disorders.

However, while almost 4,500 Canadians currently are on waiting lists for organ donations, almost one-third will never receive them.

So what will it take to get more potential donors to make the commitment?

Prof. Timothy A. Caulfield, a member of Canadian Stem Cell Foundation’s Science Leadership Council, considers the problem in a recent Policy Options article.

“Our current laws are looking antiquated,” he says.

Prof. Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, is studying policy options that could increase the number of donations.

If Canada is falling behind the United States and the European Union, then a “legislative rethinking seems warranted,” he writes.

Prof. Caulfield acknowledges that many approaches to increase donations come with considerable controversy. For example, offering financial incentives for donations can turn the process into a for-profit enterprise, with some people donating their organs only to get a financial award. He cites concerns that poorly a devised incentive system “runs an enormous risk of exploiting the most vulnerable and poorest members of our society.”

But the current “ban everything” approach just isn’t working, he writes.

“We need organ donation legislation that will allow innovative and ethically acceptable strategies to be tested and implemented,” he says. To do that, we need evidence-based answers to questions such as “Will a closely regulated, domestic incentive system necessarily result in exploitation?”

Click here to read the article.

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14
Jan 2014
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Dr. Michael Fehlings of Toronto Western Hospital

Hope not hype for spinal cord injury

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CTV News is to be commended for its excellent, even-handed reporting late last week of an exciting but early-

stage clinical trial to test using stem cell injections to treat spinal cord injury.…

CTV News is to be commended for its excellent, even-handed reporting late last week of an exciting but early-

stage clinical trial to test using stem cell injections to treat spinal cord injury.

The Friday report, originating in Calgary where the first North American patient has received the treatment, goes to great lengths to temper hope with the hard reality that a cure for spinal cord injury is many years away.

Reporter Karen Owen cautions that  “everyone’s expectations have to be realistic” and features University of Calgary neurosurgeon Dr. John Hurlbert talking about potential small improvements in patients’ quality of life, such as being able to hold a fork or button a shirt.

In other words, no one is raising false hope by suggesting patients might be rising from their wheel chairs and running down hospital halls any time soon.

The CTV website’s also offers an extended interview with Dr. Michael Fehlings, head of the spinal program at Toronto Western Hospital and the lead investigator for the trial at the University of Toronto, who articulately explains why it’s important for the public to hear about this kind of study — even though it’s so early in the game.

“It represents an advance in regenerative medicine technologies from the laboratory into the clinical realm,” Dr. Fehlings says. “This is  now a situation where the science has advanced to the stage where as rigorous a regulatory authority as Health Canada now feels the science is at a level where it can be ethically and scientifically studied in man. So this is a big deal in terms of the advance of the science.”

The North American trial builds on work already done in Europe where nine patients have undergone the treatment with no apparent adverse effects and some small gains observed. In essence, the researchers inject neural stem cells into the spine where there may be some intact nerve fibres to stimulate regrowth insulating layers called myelin. The goal is to restore electrical conduction along the spinal cord to restore muscle strength and sensation.

This is good news. It gives hope to the more than 85,000 Canadians who live with spinal cord injury. But it doesn’t set them up for disappointment by giving them hype.

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13
Jan 2014
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Save cord blood, save lives

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In September, when the first public umbilical cord blood bank opened in Ottawa, Canada joined — albeit last — the rest of the G8 countries to have a national collection program.…

In September, when the first public umbilical cord blood bank opened in Ottawa, Canada joined — albeit last — the rest of the G8 countries to have a national collection program.

Things have been rolling along since then.

On Friday, the BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre in Vancouver was named the fourth collection site across the country, with Brampton and Edmonton designated in October and November respectively. “We are honoured to have BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre as one of our collection hospitals,” Dr. Graham Sher, Chief Executive Officer at Canadian Blood Services, which manages the public bank, said in a media release. CBS expects to collect about 18,000 cord blood units over the next six years.

Healthy women 18 years older who are delivering at the Vancouver hospital can soon voluntarily donate their baby’s cord blood during a testing period that will last until mid-year. The collection site officially launches later this year.

The donated cord blood will be available to patients unable to find donors among their families or donor lists. Cord blood cells are a rich source of stem cells, which can be transplanted to treat diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma.

With Vancouver being such an ethnically diverse city, the newly created collection facility will increase the possibility of patients from different ethnical backgrounds — including Asians, Aboriginal People and multi-ethnic people — finding a match.

“Finding a bone marrow match was more of a problem for me because I’m black” Hector Walker, who received his bone marrow transplant from cord blood cells in 2010, told the Vancouver Sun. “Even my brother wasn’t a match.

“Life is so unpredictable. People should understand they can save someone’s life by doing this,” he said.

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09
Jan 2014
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Tricky science made simple, Part II

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Some time ago we wrote about a remarkable video animation project designed to make stem cells easier to understand for non-scientists.…

Some time ago we wrote about a remarkable video animation project designed to make stem cells easier to understand for non-scientists. While we told you about the first video from StemCellShorts, we forgot to follow up when two fresh instalments came online.

The two videos cover the topics: “What is an embryonic stem cell?” narrated by Dr. Janet Rossant, Chief of Research at The Hospital for Sick Children’s Research Institute, and “What is an induced pluripotent stem cell?” voiced by Dr. Mick Bhatia, Director of the  McMaster Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Research Institute. Click here to watch them.

The videos are part of StemCellShorts, a series of about-a-minute-long animated videos produced by Ben Paylor, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Mike Long, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.

And more are on the way. The Canadian Stem Cell Foundation has joined Stem Cell Network to fund the production of five more videos that will cover other such topics as stem cell tourism, blood stem cells, and neural stem cells — each narrated by a world-leading Canadian authority. They are to be unveiled in time for the Annual Meeting of International Society for Stem Cell Research in Vancouver on June 18-21, 2014.

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08
Jan 2014
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Actor Michael York’s ‘other’ birthday

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It all started when Michael York began developing dark circles under his eyes. The British movie star, famous for his roles in Cabaret and Austin Powers, first attributed the changes to a lack of sleep or age.…

It all started when Michael York began developing dark circles under his eyes. The British movie star, famous for his roles in Cabaret and Austin Powers, first attributed the changes to a lack of sleep or age.

In a recent talk at the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the actor explained how he eventually realized something was seriously wrong: his skin was getting worse and he was feeling ill.

It took years to get a correct diagnosis: amyloidosis — the term for a group of rare diseases in which one or more organs accumulate deposits of abnormal proteins known as amyloid. He was also diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells.

In July 2012, he underwent a successful stem cell transplant to treat his diseases.  “July the 10th is my other birthday,” the much-honoured actor says of the day he received the cells.  Mr. York has been able to return to performing and is currently working on a documentary film.

He tells his story in this video, calling regenerative medicine “the future” and “the most exciting thing on the horizon.”

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07
Jan 2014
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Dr Michael Rudnicki

‘They desire a better country’

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The end of the year brought new recognition to Dr. Michael Rudnicki, one of Canada’s leading stem cell scientists and a member of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation’s Board of Directors.…

The end of the year brought new recognition to Dr. Michael Rudnicki, one of Canada’s leading stem cell scientists and a member of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation’s Board of Directors. Dr. Rudnicki has been appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada for contributing to scientific breakthroughs in the area of muscle development.

“Stem cell research is really an area of strategic strength in Canada,” Dr. Rudnicki, CEO and Scientific Director of the Stem Cell Network, told the Ottawa Citizen in its report of the latest appointments.

From the discovery of stem cells in 1961 by Drs. Jim Till and Ernest McCulloch until today, Canada has played a leading role in stem cell research. Clearly, Canadian researchers “desire a better country” or desiderantes meliorem patriam, as the motto of the Order of Canada says.

The Order of Canada recognizes outstanding lifelong contributions made by Canadians in different fields. The honour of the Officer is the second highest recognition, awarded for a lifetime of achievement and merit of a high degree, especially in service to Canada or to humanity at large. Dr. Rudnicki’s appointment means the Foundation’s Board of Directors now includes six Order of Canada honorees, including L. Jacques Ménard, who holds the highest rank awarded, Companion.

Other honorees include rock stars Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo and actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley.

Dr. Rudnicki is a Senior Scientist and the Director of the Regenerative Medicine Program and the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. He is also a Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Ottawa and holds the Canada Research Chair in Molecular Genetics.

His research focuses on the molecular mechanisms that regulate the determination, proliferation, and differentiation of stem cells tissue regeneration. His lab identified proteins that play a fundamental role in muscle stem cell function and that could be used to treat muscle diseases. Muscle diseases, such as Muscular Dystrophy in its different forms, are caused by genetic deficiency. There is hope that stem cells can help repair or replace damaged genes.

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