Dec 2017

Passing the torch in celebration

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A message from James Price, President & CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation.

More than a dozen years ago, when the Federal Government was holding hearings to draft what would become the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which regulates the use of stem cells in research, I was part of the management team at the Stem Cell Network.

I remember lively conversations with the late and wonderful Drew Lyall, the Network’s Executive Director, in which we agreed something was missing.  Beyond the scientists, we realized, there was no strong, national voice speaking on behalf of Canadians about the importance of these wondrous cells.

Back then, stem cells were much-misunderstood, with research still in very preliminary stages. Along with seeing that the lawmakers got things right, it was imperative to make sure the tremendous therapeutic potential of stem cell research and development be realized through proper funding and widespread public support.

What was needed was an independent organization to carry the banner, especially given that the Network’s funding was due to end within a few years.  And to be honest, Canadian pride also played a big role in establishing the Foundation.  Although stem cells were discovered here, and Canada had done much of the groundbreaking work in the field, few knew about it.

We got good advice from David Hughes, who’d run Habitat for Humanity Canada and was an expert on setting up non-profit organizations that work effectively.  And I consulted with Mark Sarner at Manifest Communications Inc.  Mark is a pioneer in social marketing and believes that it’s more important to further a cause than to add another layer of administration, which fit with our thinking: we didn’t want to create a top-heavy organization; we wanted to start a movement.  We wanted to get all the boats paddling in the same direction — and get more boats on the water.

We created the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation (incorporated as a non-profit charitable organization in 2008 and officially launched two years later) to make stem cell R&D a national priority with the public, private industry and government.  You can see that “start a-movement” thinking reflected in our branding.  We opted not to use an image that looked like it was pulled from a science textbook.  We wanted something aspirational.  We went with several strands of different coloured ribbons, crisscrossing but flowing together.

Our next step was to declare what we stood for.  We wanted to set out our principles – and the principles underpinning stem cell R&D – in a single document.  We reached out to Prof. Bartha Maria Knoppers at McGill University, one of Canada’s leading ethicists, who, with her colleague Prof. Rosario Isasi, helped draft the Stem Cell Charter setting out the core ethical values to be integrated into stem cell R&D.  Uptake was immediate: the International Society for Stem Cell Research signed on.  So did the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Canadian Blood Services and Stem Cells Australia, among others.  Realizing this could be big, we organized our first public awareness campaign.  People from 90 countries signed the Charter –  giving us a reach far beyond what we expected.

The campaign was so successful that our website, developed with Manifest, was nominated in the advocacy category of the 2010 Webby Awards, the Oscars of the Internet, in New York.  We made it to the finalists, where we were up against much-better-funded, bigger-staffed organizations like Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, which was building new sustainable, flood-proof houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference of 2009.  Guess what?  We won.

A big part of that campaign was the powerful We’re Not Rock Stars  video that we produced with Andy Keen, the Gemini and Juno award-winning filmmaker who directed The Tragically Hip documentary Bobcageyon.  He brought his passion for the subject to the project and, to this day, it remains a powerful statement on the importance of stem cell science.  The real trick, though, was getting so many of Canada’s top scientists – some of the busiest and most overbooked people around – in the same room at the same time.  The video has since been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

As the saying goes, you’re known by the company you keep.  From the earliest days, our Foundation succeeded in attracting some of Canada’s most highly regarded influencers and leaders.  Dr. Alan Bernstein, the inaugural head of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, agreed to chair a board that included former Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, STEMCELL Technologies powerhouse founder Dr. Allen Eaves, and former university presidents Drs. Martha Piper and Peter MacKinnon.  Business titans such as Stephen Snyder, who had run GE Canada and TransAlta Corp. and, more recently, Dr. Jim Spatz, one of Atlantic Canada’s leading real estate developers, and Miranda Hubbs, former managing director of one of Canada’s largest institutional asset managers, also came on board.

Beyond the directors, our Till & McCulloch Leadership Circle included almost 40 of Canada’s best and brightest company presidents and CEOs and philanthropists who not only provided financial support but priceless advice.  You can see the complete list here All our operations, by the way, were funded through the grace and favour of these private donors.  The Foundation never asked for nor accepted a dime of taxpayer money to do its work.

I mentioned earlier that Canadian pride was a driving force in creating the Foundation.  In 2005, when Drs. James Till & Ernest McCulloch won the Lasker Award – the most prestigious medical research award except for the Nobel – it started many of us thinking: why don’t more Canadians know about these two brilliant men who discovered stem cells?   Why isn’t there a book about them?  In the spring of 2010, I called in Joe Sornberger, a journalist who’d written extensively about stem cells, and, 18 months later, Dreams & Due Diligence: Till and McCulloch’s Stem Cell Discovery and Legacy was published by the University of Toronto Press The book, which has sold 3,000 copies so far, has been praised by reviewers for telling Till and McCulloch’s “amazing story …  wonderfully well.”

Speaking of Canadian pride, Canada’s scientists are a modest bunch.  They don’t bang the drum very loudly about themselves, or about each other for that matter.  We wanted to change that.  We wanted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Till and McCulloch’s stem cell discovery and, in the process, promote stem cell research.  We decided to hold a gala, the marketing for which was straightforward: “It’s not about being able to tell your grandchildren you were there; it’s about your grandchildren.”  In the spring of 2012, we cleared the cars out of the Mercedes Benz Midtown Toronto showroom and had 50 tables of 10 people, each with a top-notch scientist and a celebrity – people like Canadian Football Hall of Fame quarterback Damon Allen, the Tenors, three of the five Dragons’ Den dragonsChantal Kreviazuk and Dan Hill.  It was hosted by CBC’s Heather Hiscox.  Former multiple sclerosis patient Jennifer Molson told the assembled how stem cells gave her a second chance at life.  Jim Till got a standing ovation.  That the night was such a huge success was largely due to Hala Bissada, of Hala Inc., owner of one of the most highly awarded event firms in North America.

Given the amount of misunderstanding – and hype – swirling around stem cells, we wanted to help Canadians understand what these cells could, and couldn’t, do for them.  Working with the Network and science writer Maya Chaddah, we developed Toward Treatments, reader-friendly summaries of how stems cells are being applied in the treatment of 19 incurable diseases or conditions.  These have proven to be such a great resource that our partners at CellCAN have not only translated them into French, but added a graphic app called Reggie.  You can find it here.

While we have always been a small organization, no one ever accused us of thinking that way.  We believe that to fully capitalize on research gains, Canada needs to make a major commitment to stem cells and regenerative medicine.  We set to work and crafted the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy, a truly transformative plan created over two years through consultation with 150 scientists, medical doctors, leaders from the major health charities, investors, industry experts and philanthropists.  It calls for the delivery of 10 new curative therapies to the clinic within 10 years and a $1.5-billion investment, with two-thirds to come from private sources and one-third from the Government of Canada.

Which brings us to today.  As I said at the outset, when we established the Foundation, the goal was to make stem cells a national priority with the public, private industry and government.  Back then, we expected accomplishing that goal would take five to 10 years.

We were right.  Looking at the field today, the public’s appreciation of stem cell science has blossomed, with widespread recognition of the lives that are being saved and a growing understanding of Canada’s leading role – with statues of Till and McCulloch installed in prominent locations in Toronto and Vancouver.

Industry involvement has never been stronger: businesses are currently investing more than $300 million to take stem cell solutions from research labs to patients in hospital beds.  Major commitments by companies such as Versant, Bayer and GE Healthcare are breaking down the barriers to successful development of new therapies.  Meanwhile, Vancouver’s STEMCELL Technologies has grown into Canada’s largest independent biotech, preparing to expand its staff of 1,000 by 4,000 within 10 years.

Through the direct efforts of the Foundation, and in collaboration with our partners, the Government of Canada has come to understand that regenerative medicine can create thousands of knowledge-economy jobs, save lives and help ease the strain on our over-stressed health care system.  So far, the Government has committed more than $200 million in new funding to programs like the Medicine by Design program led by the University of Toronto in partnership with the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine.  It decided to renew support for the Stem Cell Network and played a key role in getting a cell-manufacturing centre up and running in partnership with the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine in Toronto.  It has enabled Québec-based CellCAN to move forward with cell therapy clinical trials.

Much of the Federal Government’s increased awareness arises from the Foundation-led advocacy campaign for the Strategy, which has been critical in defining priorities for action.  Recognizing the stem cell/regenerative medicine sector as one of four key sectors in which Canada can excel, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan recently created the Canada Research Co-ordinating Committee to find ways to reinvigorate federal science funding.  As part of that initiative, the Foundation is preparing a set of recommendations on how to better co-ordinate investment to build a world-class stem cell/regenerative medicine sector in Canada.

Making our submission to this effort will be a crowning achievement for the Foundation and is, in many ways, indicative of how it is now time for us to pass the torch.  The field is on solid footing and the future looks bright, with substantial investments in place and renewed advocacy efforts underway across the country.  It is not our wish to duplicate these efforts.

So, as we prepare to sunset the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation on December 31st of this year, we celebrate our achievements: making stem cells a national priority; helping scientists secure more funding for their work; advancing the development of new treatments for devastating diseases; and raising the profile of stem cell research and development.

Thank you all for your support over these past several years.  It has been invaluable.  We look forward to seeing what the future holds.

James Price is President & CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation.



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