Dr. Andy Becker, one of the true pioneers of stem cell science, has died in Toronto at age 80.
Dr. Becker was the lead author of the 1963 paper, published in Nature, that definitively demonstrated the existence of stem cells. Using chromosomal markers, he retraced their steps after they had generated the three types of precursor cells needed to make blood.
“It was a key contribution to our early experimental investigations of stem cells,”Dr. Jim Till, who was Dr. Becker’s PhD advisor at the time, wrote via email. “His combination of talent and persistence was what was needed to complete this challenging and innovative research. I’m still amazed at what he accomplished. I doubt if anyone else, at that time, could have succeeded in the way that Andy did.”
Dr. Becker worked closely with Drs. Ernest McCulloch and Till who, in 1961, had successfully shown that single cells drawn from bone marrow could produce colony-forming units containing the precursor cells required to make white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. That paper laid the foundation for stem cell science.
A third Till & McCulloch paper — also published in 1963 but with Dr. Lou Siminovitch as lead author –proved that stem cells not only differentiate into new cells but also have the capacity to self-renew in order to keep the process going throughout our lifetimes. Combined, the three papers essentially defined stem cells and set the stage for regenerative medicine.
Dr. Becker’s paper proved just how tenacious a researcher he could be. The chromosomal marker method was nothing if not painstakingly frustrating, given the rudimentary technology available at the time. In the University of Toronto Press book Dreams & Due Diligence, Dr. Becker’s wife, Prof. Clelia Ganoza, explains that he had a “killer instinct” for research, which meant that “the goal is the important issue and the obstacles to overcome are just needed lessons towards this end.”
As the Toronto Star obituary explains, Dr. Becker, who was also a medical doctor, not only did seminal work with stem cells but contributed greatly to the development of recombinant DNA technology.
Here at the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, our hearts go out to Dr. Becker’s family, especially Prof. Ganoza, his wife of 47 years.