A message from Dr. Alan Bernstein, OC, FRSC, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation. He is President and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
When I returned to Canada from New York after leading the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, it was relatively easy to decide to become involved with the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation.
One of the most exciting fields of scientific research and promising areas of clinical and translational medicine, stem cells hold huge promise for treating a diverse variety of human diseases, from cancer to neurological disorders to diabetes and more. And Canada punches well above its weight, starting with the 1960s discovery of stem cells by Dr. James Till, who I trained with in the 1970s, and his partner Dr. Ernest ‘Bun’ McCulloch. Many other Canadian scientists have subsequently contributed – with the discovery of cancer stem cells, neural stem cells, mesenchymal stem cells, to name just a few – to make Canada a world leader in the field.
I also agreed to chair the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation’s Board of Directors because I had enormous respect for the people who were already involved, such as former university presidents Drs. Martha Piper and Peter MacKinnon of the Universities of British Columbia and Saskatchewan, respectively. The board also included the Hon. Anne McLellan, who I had worked closely with when I was head of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and she was Minister of Health.
The list of highly respected people didn’t end with the board. Largely because of the efforts of President and CEO James Price, the Foundation had enlisted prominent Canadians from across the country to join the Till & McCulloch Leadership Circle and show their support for stem cell science and its application to improving health. That was a significant achievement that not only gave the Foundation the credibility it needed but also signaled to the broader Canadian stem cell community that prominent Canadians were active supporters of their goals.
That’s a big reason why Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, in her mandate letter to the new Canada Research Coordinating Committee last month, named stem cells and regenerative medicine as one of the four key areas for coordination amongst the four federal agencies involved in funding research in this country. This is no accident: it represents the culmination of the efforts of the Foundation and the people associated with it.
In fact, the Foundation has had an important impact on the Federal Government’s appreciation of Canada’s strength in stem cell science and its increased awareness of the important work underway in labs across the country. The now two-year extension of funding to the Stem Cell Network and funding of the $114-million Medicine by Design project at the University of Toronto, much of which is focused on stem cells and regenerative medicine, are indicators of the recognition by government that this is a central component of Canadian research and innovation.
There has been a significant impact on industry, as well. People closely associated with the Foundation, like board member Dr. Allen Eaves, whose Vancouver-based STEMCELL Technologies does business around the globe, have shown you can build successful enterprises and generate the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars into the Canadian economy through stem cell research and development. Similarly, the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, largely by offshore investors, into BlueRock Therapeutics, a company dedicated to stem cell therapy for cardiac disease, is further evidence of both the strength of Canadian stem cell science and its promise for the treatment of serious human diseases.
Thanks to the efforts of many organizations and many people, the Canadian stem cell effort is in excellent shape. There is positive energy around the country and there are outstanding young people entering the field, which, at the end of the day, is what really matters. They see a great future in stem cells and regenerative medicine.
Because of all this, the Foundation’s board, after an extensive six months of deliberation, decided that our work is now done. The Foundation has accomplished what it was created to do: raise awareness about the importance of stem cell research and the strengths of stem cell science across the country. We were able to make key individuals aware of the value of stem cell research and development – both in terms of improving the health of Canadians and bolstering the Canadian economy.
While it is always easier to start new organizations than end existing ones, the Board of Directors unanimously made the difficult but wise decision to sunset the Foundation and to declare victory. At the same time, the Board also expressed its sincerest thanks to James and to his Executive Assistant, Eileen Emmonds, and Susan DeLisle, Director of Development, for their utmost commitment to the Foundation and its goals and their outstanding efforts on behalf of the Foundation and stem cell science in Canada.
Dr. Alan Bernstein, OC, FRSC, has served as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation. He is President and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.