Joe Sornberger

10
Dec 2013
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Jelissa Morgan Screen Capture

Jelissa’s story

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We recently featured the story of Tina Ceroni, a Burlington Ontario athlete whose life was sidelined by a rare, insidious disorder called Stiff Person Syndrome.

We recently featured the story of Tina Ceroni, a Burlington Ontario athlete whose life was sidelined by a rare, insidious disorder called Stiff Person Syndrome. Thanks to a stem cell transplant, Tina’s fitness career — and her life — is back on track. To show her gratitude, Tina raised almost $37,000 for the Ottawa Hospital’s Stem Cell and Bone Marrow Transplant Program. When she was presented the cheque to Dr. Harry Atkins on Dec. 4th, Tina met with two other young women whose lives have been rescued by stem cell treatments: Jelissa Morgan and Jennifer Molson. Today we share Jelissa’s story.

From nurse to patient and (soon) back again

When Jelissa Morgan’s neuromyelitis optica flared up again in early 2012, she was devastated.

The rare immunological disorder, similar to Multiple Sclerosis, inflames the optic nerve and the spinal cord. Jelissa was losing her vision — she couldn’t read or watch movies and had trouble identifying who was talking to her. Walking was difficult. She had serious bladder and bowel problems and her skin itched. ‘My body was in pain,” she says, “but didn’t know how to express it.”

That flare-up, the worst of a series the young woman had experienced since finishing high school, transformed Jelissa from hospital nurse to hospital patient.

Until then, her doctors had kept the condition under control with Prednisone, a synthetic corticosteroid that comes with a slew of potential side-effects such as weight gain, sleep difficulties and mood swings. Some patients develop a humped back and a moon face.  Jelissa had all of those symptoms and more.

A switch to a different drug, called Imuran, proved futile: she was on it when the worst flare-up struck.

“They were running out of medication options. My neurologist said, ‘What do you think about a stem cell bone marrow transplant?’ She knew about Dr. Harry Atkins and the work he was doing with MS patients.”

For the past several years, the Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Atkins, working with neurologist Dr. Mark Freedman, has been treating MS patients with stem cell bone marrow transplants. In essence, he takes stem cells from patients with the most severe cases of the immunological disease and purifies and fortifies them. The patient then undergoes an extreme course of chemotherapy treatments that virtually annihilates their diseased immune system. The robust stem cells are then returned to them to rebuild a new — hopefully disease-free — immune system.

The process has worked well with about 30 MS patients whose disease progression has been stopped. In some cases, symptoms of the disease have diminished significantly and — in at least one case — disappeared entirely.

Dr. Atkins is also using the procedure for people who have other autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease, Stiff Person Syndrome — and neuromyelitis optica.

Jelissa decided to have the experimental stem cell treatment.

“It’s kind of one of those decisions where you don’t want to wait,” she say. “You don’t know when the next flare-up will be. That last flare-up was so bad.  Luckily, I was able to regain a lot of the functions I’d lost. But it’s like rolling the dice. You don’t know what could happen with the next flare-up.”

Jelissa received her stem cell transplant in the fall of 2012. She has been free of neuromyelitis optica symptoms ever since.

“I feel better than I did even before the disease began.  I have much more energy. I’m off all my pills for the immune disorder and the transplant meds. I’m looking forward to getting my life back on track. That includes buying a car, moving out of my parent’s house and traveling.”

She is excited about returning to nursing in the next few months, after receiving a series of vaccinations to replace the ones lost during the chemotherapy treatment.

“From a patient perspective, a transplant is a hard thing to go through. But I survived.  I feel like it’s given me a second chance at life. ”

She strongly supports stem cell research to help more people with diseases like hers.

“Stem cell research opens up so many possibilities.  It’s like opening a door and entering a room and you don’t even know what’s in the room yet. It could mean treatments for so many things.  There is so much hope there.”

Harrys Angels Screen Capture 2

Dr. Harry Atkins with former patients Jelissa Morgan, Jennifer Molson and Tina Ceroni

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09
Dec 2013
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Colorectal cancer advance comes with a challenge

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When Dr. John Dick unveiled his latest cancer discovery last week, he also issued a challenge.

“I think this work will hopefully stimulate (drug) companies to get into the game,” he told the Toronto Star.…

When Dr. John Dick unveiled his latest cancer discovery last week, he also issued a challenge.

“I think this work will hopefully stimulate (drug) companies to get into the game,” he told the Toronto Star.

Dr. Dick, senior scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine, led a team of scientists and surgeons that found a way to disarm a gene called BMI-1 that regulates colorectal cancer stem cells.

In his own words: “When we blocked the BMI-1 pathway, the (cancer) stem cells were unable to self-renew, which resulted in long-term and irreversible impairment of tumour growth. In other words, the cancer was permanently shut down.”

Some context:  Dr. Dick was the first person in the world to identify cancer stem cells, the evil twin of the stem cell. Just as stem cells spark the creation of millions of specialized cells to repair and regenerate tissues and organs (while also renewing themselves) throughout a lifetime, cancer stem cells drive the production of millions of tumour cells (while also replicating themselves).

Current cancer therapies — essentially, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — go after the tumour cells but leave the cancer stem cells unscathed. Which is why, researchers believe, cancer often comes back.

When Dr. Dick discovered the cancer stem cell — first in leukemia in 1994 and then in colon cancer in 2007 — he opened up a new front in the war on the dread disease.  With his latest finding, published in Nature Medicine,  he has provided a schematic diagram for building a major new weapon in that war. One that can be aimed at colorectal cancer, the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the Western world.

The discovery, which made news across Canada, is based on research conducted with mice. The team replicated human colon cancer in the rodents and identified BMI-1, a gene implicated in other cancers, as the pivotal regulator of the cancer stem cells, driving the cycle of self-renewal, proliferation and cell survival. Then they put an existing small-molecule inhibitor to work blocking BMI-1.

While the implications are enormous, there is a huge chasm to be bridged between working with mice and testing a drug  with people. It could take years and many millions of dollars.  But an important start has been made.

What happens now?

“So the next step … is to find the best possible drug to target this gene,” says Dr. Dick in a University Health Network video. “We’re actually testing a number of drugs that are able to target this gene. We’re trying to determine which is the best one and working with other investigators and other companies to try to develop and optimize the drugs so they can be delivered to patients in the best possible way.”

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04
Dec 2013
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Tina Ceroni Capture

Tina Ceroni

Stem cell transplant put athlete’s life back on track

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A few years ago, when Tina Ceroni first noticed the muscle tightness and cramping in her legs, she put it down to too much exercise.  …

A few years ago, when Tina Ceroni first noticed the muscle tightness and cramping in her legs, she put it down to too much exercise.  An accomplished athlete who ran a personal training business in Burlington Ontario, she was used to sore muscles. She never suspected that a rare neurological disorder called Stiff Person Syndrome (SPS) was beginning to take a vise-like grip on her life.

But as the attacks increased in frequency and intensity, constricting her whole body so forcefully that she feared her bones might snap, Tina realized something was seriously wrong. After a couple of misdiagnoses, doctors found she had won the one-in-a-million reverse lottery for SPS, a condition that can only be treated with palliative measures such as sedatives to unbind the ever-tightening muscles.

“I was a ticking time bomb,” says Tina, pictured at left. “Everywhere I went, there was a chance that I could have a life-threatening episode. I tried to keep active, but if I was out on the road cycling and had an attack I didn’t have the ability to use my phone and call someone. I wasn’t able to breathe. So I had to have someone with me all the time.”

Ordinary life stressors, such as loud noises or crowded, noisy rooms, could trigger attacks. So could emotional stresses: her muscles seized up at a friend’s funeral and she had to be taken to hospital.

At her worst, in 2010, she was having five to seven attacks a month, each time requiring paramedics to rush her to the emergency ward where doctors, now familiar with her condition, treated her with propofol, the strong sedative implicated in the death of pop star Michael Jackson.

Tina had to stop working, give up her driver’s licence and stay close to her supportive family. The vivacious, outgoing young woman’s future looked bleak.

Harry Atkins captureBut in remarkable ‘small world’ circumstances, she found a fellow SPS patient who had undergone a successful stem cell transplant treatment at Ottawa General Hospital under the care of Dr. Harry Atkins, stem cell researcher and bone marrow transplant expert.

For more than a decade, Dr. Atkins, pictured at left, has been treating Multiple Sclerosis with stem cell bone marrow transplants. More recently, he has been using the procedure for patients with other autoimmune conditions such as SPS, Crohn’s disease and neuromyelitis optica.

In essence, he collects stem cells from a patient and then purifies and fortifies them. The patient then undergoes an extreme course of chemotherapy treatments to all but annihilate their diseased immune system. The robust stem cells are then returned to them to rebuild a new — hopefully disease-free — immune system.

The treatment has shown remarkable results, stopping the progress of the patients’ autoimmune diseases. In some cases, patients enter into complete remission.

After consulting with Dr. Atkins, Tina underwent the grueling procedure — the chemotherapy leaves patients extremely weak and near death — in April of 2011. Now, approaching three years later, she is symptom-free.  She has resumed her work as a fitness trainer and volunteers at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, where one of her roles is counseling patients who are about to undergo transplant therapy.

“There are no limits; I’m doing everything I love. I can be in big groups and be around all my nieces and nephews, where before it was difficult because the fear of having an attack was a big concern. I can truly say I’m in remission right now.  I feel so thankful.”

With her fear of crowds gone, Tina held an event she called Share a Cell in late October to raise awareness and funds for the Stem Cell and Bone Marrow Transplant (Program at the Ottawa Hospital. More than 200 family, friends and supporters contributed almost $37,000. Today Tina presented Dr. Atkins and his team with a cheque for the amount.

“Before this, I didn’t know much about stem cell transplants,” says Tina. “Now I know how stem cell transplants can change the future. I want to do what I can to raise awareness about stem cell research and what it’s doing for people and how it’s saving lives by affecting all different diseases and conditions.”

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02
Dec 2013
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Keep calm and carry on searching for cures

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A remarkable new Canadian report provides a snapshot of the state of “novel” stem cell clinical trials — those not about bone marrow transplantation for blood-based cancers — around the world.…

A remarkable new Canadian report provides a snapshot of the state of “novel” stem cell clinical trials — those not about bone marrow transplantation for blood-based cancers — around the world.

Published in Regenerative Medicine, The global landscape of stem cell clinical trials goes a long way to separate the hype from the hope around stem cell research and development.

The basic message of what the authors call “the most comprehensive account of the global stem cell clinical trial landscape to date” might be condensed to that recently refreshed British maxim from the Second World War: Keep calm and carry on.

“People have done it in a less systematic way,” says co-author Prof. Tania Bubela of other attempts to capture the global stem cell landscape.  “But they didn’t work out what’s new.”

Prof. Bubela, a lawyer and Associate Professor at University of Alberta School of Public Health, wrote the report with lead author Dr. Matthew D. Li of the Stanford University School of Medicine, and Dr. Harry Atkins, a clinician/researcher at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute who specializes in stem cell transplantation for the treatment of autoimmune diseases.

They looked at every stem cell trial listed in worldwide registries up to Dec. 31, 2012. Of the 4,749 studies, almost 80% involve improving bone marrow transplantation using hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells to treat leukemia and other blood-based cancers — or treating transplant-related conditions.

That work has been going on for five decades, with more than 1 million transplants performed so far. It’s no surprise, then, that so many trials are being carried out in countries with established infrastructure for bone marrow transplantation. It shows that developing clinical capacity and technical infrastructure to process and deliver cell therapies will be crucial to the ongoing development of regenerative medicine.

Setting those trials aside leaves 22% — or 1,058 clinical trials — testing novel therapies for a variety of maladies ranging from kidney conditions (eight clinical trials) to cardiovascular disease (278). It’s on these non-traditional trials that the report focuses.

And the findings are enlightening:

  • In spite of enormous media attention, embryonic stem cells are being used in just a handful of clinical trials worldwide.
  • The use of allogeneic (donated) stem cells “has increased rapidly since 2009” but autologous procedures (using a patient’s own stem cells) still prevail.
  • Asian countries — especially China, but also South Korea, India and Japan — have surpassed the United States and Europe in volume of novel clinical trials.  Trials are also increasing in Australia, Brazil, Iran and Israel.
  • Industry partners are involved at least 25% the time, up significantly since 2004.  This is particularly true in American states such as California, where 50% of all trials involve industry sponsorship or collaboration.
  • Big pharma, however, is still on the fence: worldwide, most of the companies involved in novel trials are small to medium sized.
  • Despite gaps in knowledge about the duration of their survival and impact on surrounding tissues, mesenchymal stem cells (found in bone marrow, umbilical cord blood ,muscle and fat tissue) are being used Phase 2 trials for diabetes, pulmonary hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease because of their “regenerative and reparative” potential.

Prof. Bubela makes the point that not all clinical trials are created equal. Regarding the proliferation of trials in Asia, she cautions that “just because they are listed in a registry doesn’t mean they have proper oversight or regulatory approval.”  Some, she says, may be run by stem cell tourism operations — clinics that entice North Americans and Europeans to travel to their centres for unproven treatments that cost many thousands of dollars.

“You could speculate that they could be using it (the clinical trial) as a recruitment tool or for some form or legitimacy for the work they are doing.“

The report stresses that despite pressure from “patient groups desperate for therapies and cures for currently untreatable conditions” and “industry and policy makers eager to see a return on substantial investments,” moving treatments from clinical trials to clinical practice is going to take some time.

“If you look at the trajectory of any complex biologic (treatment), from R&D through regulatory processes, that just gives you market approval — it doesn’t give you a market,” says Prof. Bubela. “You still need to get clear reimbursement thresholds established.  To get the complicated stuff through, you can be looking at 20-30-year development pipelines.”

The report concludes that “the field is progressing at a steady pace, but the therapeutic rhetoric must be tempered to reflect current clinical and research realities.”

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29
Nov 2013
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A small clinical trial says big things about Japan

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Japan is moving forward with its plans to fast-track the use of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to treat diseases — and revitalize its economy.…

Japan is moving forward with its plans to fast-track the use of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to treat diseases — and revitalize its economy.

According to the Japan Times, the country last week officially passed a law “to promote safe and swift treatment using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells and other stem cells.” The legislation had previously received lower-house parliamentary approval.

As touched upon in an earlier post, Japanese scientists are now conducting world’s first human tests using iPS cells to treat age-related macular degeneration – the leading cause of vision loss in people over 50.

It’s no surprise they are first. Japan’s Dr. Shinya Yamanaka demonstrated how to create human iPs cells six years ago, inducing  adult skin cells to become pluripotent (capable of differentiating into any cell the body needs). These cells function much like human embryonic stem cells but come without any controversy over destroying embryos to create them. The downside to iPS cells is a safety concern that the reprogrammed cells could potentially cause tumours to form. Researchers in Canada and around the world have been working on solutions to that.

Dr. Yamanaka  won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his efforts. Throwing their support behind his work, Japan’s government recently announced it would invest more than $1 billion over the next 10 years in researching and developing iPS cells.

There is much more than national pride at stake, however.  According to Bloomberg News, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sees cellular regeneration as a key element of economic regeneration. His government, the report says, “estimates that stem cells’ potential to rejuvenate worn-out body parts or reverse degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s may yield $380 billion in sales by 2050.”

The macular degeneration trial involves just six patients using iPS cells generated from their own skin. It is a  tiny study by any measure. But it represents a big step in the country’s efforts to develop a stake in that potential mega-billion-dollar market.

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26
Nov 2013
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Steam Capture 2

The Habs, the Leafs, the Spleen Team?

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They called themselves the Spleen Team, a group of young scientists working under the direction of the two men — Drs.

They called themselves the Spleen Team, a group of young scientists working under the direction of the two men — Drs. Jim Till and Ernest ‘Bun’ McCulloch — who first identified the properties of the stem cell in 1961 at the old Ontario Cancer Institute labs on Sherbourne Street in Toronto.

Why spleen?  It was on the spleens of irradiated mice that Till and McCulloch first noticed the bumps or nodules that contained “colonies” of proliferating, blood-forming cells. The Spleen Team’s membership included such health research heroes as Drs. Andy Becker and Alan Wu, who helped prove that the colonies contained millions of cells descended from a single cell — the stem cell — and that it had the power to reproduce itself to keep the process going.

The Spleen Team, whose members did the world’s earliest and most important work on stem cells, particularly hematopoietic stem cells, grew to include people such as Dr. Lou Siminovitch, one of Canada’s early giants in genetics, and Dr. Alan Bernstein, who went on to be the inaugural President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

One of Dr. Till’s graduate students (identity unknown) created a Spleen Team sweatshirt for the captain to wear around the lab.  After retiring his jersey, Dr. Till kept it tucked away in a drawer for the past several decades.

There it remained. Until now.  The framed shirt, pictured here and signed by its owner, now hangs in a suitable place of honour at the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation’s offices in Ottawa.

Dr. Bernstein has written in the Globe and Mail that if hockey is Canada’s sport, its science is stem cells. We founded the field; we excel at it. Just as The Hockey Sweater, the much-loved Roch Carrier story, tells so much about the importance of a hockey jersey in our country’s culture, the Spleen Team Sweatshirt speaks volumes about Canada’s contribution to health research.

One jersey is part of fiction; one is fact. Both are quintessentially Canadian.

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20
Nov 2013
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Checking in with Jim Till

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Dr. Jim Till, who, with partner Ernest Armstrong McCulloch, first proved the existence of stem cells in the early 1960s, remains a keen observer of the field he co-founded.  

Dr. Jim Till, who, with partner Ernest Armstrong McCulloch, first proved the existence of stem cells in the early 1960s, remains a keen observer of the field he co-founded.  A Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, the 82-year-old Dr. Till maintains an office at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and pays close attention to the latest thinking in cancer stem cells on behalf of the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium. He blogs occasionally and tweets regularly, directing almost 600 followers to research findings he thinks are particularly worthwhile.  He continues to advocate for open access to published research papers — a cause he has championed for more than a decade.  In good health, he curls twice a week. Always up for a challenge, he agreed to take our version of the Proust Questionnaire, the series of questions about  personality that has become popular through modern day adaptations in Vanity Fair magazine and on the CBC Radio Program, The Next Chapter.  It reveals that Dr. Till values honesty, admires Charles Darwin and didn’t think he was bright enough for math. 

What’s your favourite virtue?

Honesty.

Your favourite qualities in a man?

Strength of character.

In a woman? 

Strength of character.

Your chief characteristic?

I think it’s an ability to focus in on something.

What do you appreciate most in your friends?

Loyalty.

What is your main fault?

Acting before thinking.

Your favourite occupation?

Scientist. It’s what I am.

Your idea of happiness?

Being with family.

If you were not yourself, who would you have liked to be?

Charles Darwin. I think he was the most important, most inventive biologist of all time. I could add a physicist: Max Delbrück. He was a theoretical physicist turned biologist.  I dealt with him a few times. Very impressive guy.

Where would you like to live?

I like Canada.

You favourite author?

I have to go back to my childhood when I devoured books. The Sword and the Stone by T.H. White.

Your heroes?

Tommy Douglas. He brought Medicare to Saskatchewan and then to Canada. He was a politician because he wanted to improve things for people. And he did.

What characters in history do you most admire?

They would be scientists like Darwin. Another would be Marie Curie.

What natural talent do you wish you were gifted with?

I would have liked to be brighter. I would have liked to be a mathematician, but I decided I wasn’t bright enough.  You have to be very bright to be a mathematician. You have to think in an unorthodox way. You have to be a lateral thinker. I’m a linear thinker and I go for the focus.

What’s your present state of mind?

Pleased to be still around.

What’s your motto? 

Try to be a decent person.

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13
Nov 2013
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Canada’s Health Charities share insights on Stem Cell Strategy

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Leaders from 18 national health-based charities are gathering in Toronto today as part of a national dialogue to define a bold vision and strategy for advancing stem cell research toward new therapies and treatments.…

Leaders from 18 national health-based charities are gathering in Toronto today as part of a national dialogue to define a bold vision and strategy for advancing stem cell research toward new therapies and treatments.

Participants at the Health Charities Forum for a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy — whose organizations speak for millions of Canadians dealing with conditions that range from Alzheimer’s disease to spinal cord injury — will consider how to build on Canada’s tremendous strength in stem cell research to achieve better health outcomes for Canadians.

“The idea,” says James Price, President & CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, “is to get Canada’s leading charities in one place and hear what they think should be included in a Canadian Strategy.  Because stem cells have the potential to make an impact on almost every disease, we need the health charities’ input.”

The Foundation, in partnership with the Stem Cell Network, the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, the Ontario Stem Cell Initiative and the Health Charities Coalition of Canada  is leading the campaign for a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy.

“We believe that stem cell science could soon lead to new therapies for a wide range of devastating diseases,” says Deirdre Freiheit, Executive Director of the HCCC, which helped put the Forum together. “That’s why our Coalition supports the dialogue to investigate creating a Canadian strategy that can bring together all the players to make these new treatments and cures a reality.”

Ideas generated at the Forum will help in crafting the White Paper that will form the basis of the Strategy.  Similar ongoing consultations with leading stem cell researchers, business and community leaders, industry and other stakeholders will also help shape the Strategy.

At the Forum, health charities leaders will discuss the outcomes they expect a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy to deliver and the guiding principles they would like to see put in place.  “This is a major first step in the consultation process with the charities,” says the Foundation’s Price. “But it won’t be the last. We are building a critically important dialogue.”

Who’s at the table?

• Alzheimer Society of Canada
• Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation
• Canadian Cancer Society
• Canadian Diabetes Association
• Canadian Liver Foundation
• Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada
• Cystic Fibrosis Canada
• Health Charities Coalition of Canada
• Heart and Stroke Foundation
• JDRF Canada
• Kidney Cancer Canada
• Lymphoma Foundation Canada
• Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada
• Muscular Dystrophy Canada
• Prostate Cancer Canada
• The Foundation Fighting Blindness – Canada
• The Kidney Foundation of Canada
• The Rick Hansen Institute

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08
Oct 2013
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Eaves Screen Capture

Quietly building a Canadian success story

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How did Dr. Allen Eaves build STEMCELL Technologies into a multimillion-dollar enterprise ($72 million in sales last year) employing 500 people (450 in Vancouver) and selling highest-quality products to the world’s leading scientists (including at least three Nobel Laureates) in 79 countries?…

How did Dr. Allen Eaves build STEMCELL Technologies into a multimillion-dollar enterprise ($72 million in sales last year) employing 500 people (450 in Vancouver) and selling highest-quality products to the world’s leading scientists (including at least three Nobel Laureates) in 79 countries?

Dr. Eaves, a Canadian Stem Cell Foundation Director, did it quietly. With an eye on the big prize: curing cancer.

His amazing success story – Cell Made Man – is featured this week in BCBusiness, expertly written by Anne Casselman.

She tells of how, to bring in more money for research at the Terry Fox Laboratory he founded in 1981, Dr. Eaves began selling culture media for growing blood-forming stem cells to colleagues around the world. By 1993, the media-prep business had outgrown the Terry Fox facilities, so he took out a half-million-dollar mortgage on his house and negotiated a $500,000 loan from the Western Economic Diversification Fund to start STEMCELL Technologies.

Profitable from year one, when it employed eight people and did nearly $1 million in sales, STEMCELL Technologies has grown 20% annually over 20 years. Profits are used to fuel growth and a substantial amount of revenue (about $7 million a year) gets ploughed back into R&D to keep the product line current with a field that is growing – and changing – rapidly. For example, one of the company’s key products is mTeSR™1, a culture medium for human embryonic stem cells and human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). Neither type of cells even existed when the company was founded, with iPS cells arriving on the scene just six years ago.

Dr. Eaves, an astute businessman who owns the company outright, is not in it for the money. He has turned down many offers by big multinationals that would have made him a multimillionaire many times over. “It would basically kill the company,” he told BCBusiness. He has a larger goal in mind. “I want to cure cancer. That’s the motivation,” he said. “It’s all about curing some of these diseases, wiping them off the face of the earth.”

The products that STEMCELL Technologies develops, sells and ships around the world “will contribute to doing just that,” Ms. Casselman writes.

And that’s truly refreshing to read about. While it’s always important to focus on the bottom line – businesses can’t survive, can’t employ people and can’tcontribute to the economy if they don’t make money – it’s just as significant to see the big picture.

Dr. Eaves does both. Ever so quietly.

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07
Oct 2013
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Till Capture

Another October, another Nobel oversight

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The news broke Monday that three American scientists – Dr. Thomas Südhof of Stanford, Dr. Randy Schekman of University of California at Berkeley and Dr.

The news broke Monday that three American scientists – Dr. Thomas Südhof of Stanford, Dr. Randy Schekman of University of California at Berkeley and Dr. James Rothman of Yale University have won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

As the San Jose Mercury explained, the three scientists, working separately, figured out how a cell organizes its internal transportation system, controlling the creation and release of important hormones and enzymes. They showed how this cellular cargo is delivered to the right place at the right time. Breakdowns in this trafficking system lead to neurological diseases, diabetes, immunological disorders and ultimately death.

While the three researchers’ amazing discoveries are to be celebrated as Nobel-worthy, the announcement likely is final proof that the selection committee will never right the grievous wrong of not awarding the most prestigious prize to Canada’s Dr. James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch who, in the early 1960s, proved the existence of stem cells – a truly paradigm-shifting moment in medical research.

Every October many Canadian medical scientists hope to see this mistake corrected. Every year they are disappointed.

“Bun” McCulloch’s chance to win is gone: he died two years ago and the Nobel is not awarded posthumously. However, his research partner, Jim Till, is alive and well – no doubt due in large part to the fact he is life-long avid curler – in Toronto.

Many thought that the Till oversight would have been corrected in 2012 when Stockholm decided to award the Nobel to Japan’s Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who showed how to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in 2006 (with mice) and 2007 (with humans). However, Dr. Yamanaka’s co-winner last year was the United Kingdom’s Sir John Bertrand Gurdon, for his pioneering work in the late 1950s in nuclear transplantation and cloning. Dr. Till, who could have been the third laureate in a cell-based triple play, was once again left out.

Canada, in fact, has not won a Nobel Prize in Medicine since Sir Frederick Banting captured the prize (with Scotland’s J.J.R. Macleod) in 1923 for discovering insulin. Canadian-born medical researchers who did their work elsewhere have won during that nine-decade Nobel drought, but no native son or daughter who did their groundbreaking work in Canada has made the trip to Sweden for the acceptance ceremony.

We have, of course, won in other categories. For example, the late Dr. Michael Smith, a British-born Canadian, won the Nobel for Chemistry in 1993 for his efforts in developing site-directed mutagenesis. But the Physiology and Medicine prize? Nothing in 90 years.

It is not merely Canadians who, every October, can’t comprehend this oversight. Dr. David Scadden, who co-founded and co-directs the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, has said he can’t fathom why Till and McCulloch were overlooked, noting that, “Till and McCulloch clearly are giants. They clearly paved the way and made this whole field (of stem cells).”

But while it would be enough to give the True North an inferiority complex, the simple truth is many giants in medical research have been overlooked by the Nobel selection committee.  A book due for publication later this year or in early 2014 tells the stories of more than a dozen such titans from around the world who  got the cold shoulder. Pioneers of Medicine Without a Nobel Prize, to be published by Imperial College Press, includes chapters on Sir Archibald E. Garrod, the founding father of biochemical genetics, Sir William Richard Shaboe Doll, who linked smoking and lung cancer, Dr. Albert Sabin, who developed an oral polio vaccine, and heart transplant pioneers Drs. Christiaan Barnard and Norman Shumway. Also featured are Drs. Inge Edler and Hellmuth Hertz, for their development of ultrasound for clinical use, Drs. Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, who came up with recombinant DNA, and Dr. Akira Endo, who discovered statins.

It will, of course, include a chapter on Till and McCulloch.

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