Anne McLellan, PC, OC, is best known for her work as a senior cabinet minister in the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin Liberal Governments, where she was Minister of Natural Resources, Justice Minister, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Minister of Health, and was named Deputy Prime Minister. A law professor at the University of Alberta before entering politics, she won election four times in traditionally Conservative Edmonton ridings by narrow margins, earning her the nickname of Landslide Annie. Her life after politics has been busy: she serves as a Senior Advisor with Bennett Jones LLP and is a Corporate Director with Cameco Corp. and Agrium Inc., and is Chancellor of Dalhousie University. Ms. McLellan is an original member of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation’s Board of Directors, helping shape and guide the organization from the beginning. Here she shares her thoughts on the Foundation, as it prepares to sunset, and on what needs to happen to move Canada’s stem cell/regenerative medicine sector forward.
Q: Your background is in academics and law, and, of course, federal politics. What piqued your interest in stem cells?
A: When I was Minister of Health, people were learning more about the potential of stem cells. And, of course, doctors in Alberta were developing the Edmonton Protocol for transplanting pancreatic islets to treat diabetes, so I was aware of that and had an interest in what these stem cells could do. After I left politics, a good friend of mine suggested I talk to James Price about the prospect of establishing a stem cell foundation. There was a lot of excitement about the possibilities and I wanted to become involved.
Q: Much of the Foundation’s efforts went into trying to make the Federal Government aware of stem cells’ potential to offer new life-saving treatments for currently incurable diseases and, in turn, boost the Canadian economy by creating companies and jobs. What impact do you think those efforts had?
A: The Foundation raised the profile of stem cell research not only with the Government of Canada but also with the public. Most Canadians – and I was one when I began this journey – didn’t know that Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch were responsible for the discovery of stem cells. The Foundation has helped people understand Canada’s historical strength in stem cell research and development and made the case that it would be a shame to let Canada fall behind in terms of the work being done around the world. It helped successive governments understand that this is an area in which we have had an advantage and that we are in danger of losing that advantage if we don’t support it properly.
Q: Have decision-makers in Ottawa embraced that notion?
A: I think they have, though not to the extent we’d like to see. The current Government has provided resources in different ways, including small amounts of money for the continuation of the Stem Cell Network and a larger amount of money for the Centre for Commercialization of Medicine in Toronto. And there have been incremental increases to research dollars. But it is unfortunate that the Government missed an opportunity to fund and work with researchers, clinicians and the private sector to develop a multi-year, national stem cell strategy, which is what the Foundation put forward. Then again, maybe it will happen, because that conversation has begun.
Q: What will it take to move the field forward in Canada?
A: There are a lot of people doing great work in different areas of the sector, but to maximize the potential of the work that’s being done we probably need a new governance structure that brings all the key actors in the stem cell sector together. That structure would drive fundamental research, clinical research and industrial benefits. We need to make sure that people across the stem cell sector are working together. We can’t live in a world of silos or vested interests because, at the end of the day, stem cell research is fundatmentally about improving the well-being of humanity.