They called themselves the Spleen Team, a group of young scientists working under the direction of the two men — Drs. Jim Till and Ernest ‘Bun’ McCulloch — who first identified the properties of the stem cell in 1961 at the old Ontario Cancer Institute labs on Sherbourne Street in Toronto.
Why spleen? It was on the spleens of irradiated mice that Till and McCulloch first noticed the bumps or nodules that contained “colonies” of proliferating, blood-forming cells. The Spleen Team’s membership included such health research heroes as Drs. Andy Becker and Alan Wu, who helped prove that the colonies contained millions of cells descended from a single cell — the stem cell — and that it had the power to reproduce itself to keep the process going.
The Spleen Team, whose members did the world’s earliest and most important work on stem cells, particularly hematopoietic stem cells, grew to include people such as Dr. Lou Siminovitch, one of Canada’s early giants in genetics, and Dr. Alan Bernstein, who went on to be the inaugural President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
One of Dr. Till’s graduate students (identity unknown) created a Spleen Team sweatshirt for the captain to wear around the lab. After retiring his jersey, Dr. Till kept it tucked away in a drawer for the past several decades.
There it remained. Until now. The framed shirt, pictured here and signed by its owner, now hangs in a suitable place of honour at the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation’s offices in Ottawa.
Dr. Bernstein has written in the Globe and Mail that if hockey is Canada’s sport, its science is stem cells. We founded the field; we excel at it. Just as The Hockey Sweater, the much-loved Roch Carrier story, tells so much about the importance of a hockey jersey in our country’s culture, the Spleen Team Sweatshirt speaks volumes about Canada’s contribution to health research.
One jersey is part of fiction; one is fact. Both are quintessentially Canadian.