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?
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?
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.