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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

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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