Joe Sornberger

24
Oct 2016
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BC Science World unveils bronze tribute to Till & McCulloch

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Scott Sampson, artist Ruth Abernathy, Allen Eaves and Connie Eaves pose with Till& McCulloch statue at Telus World of Science on Sunday

Fifty-five years after they became the first in the world to identify stem cells, Drs.

Scott Sampson, artist Ruth Abernathy, Allen Eaves and Connie Eaves pose with Till& McCulloch statue at Telus World of Science on Sunday

Scott Sampson, artist Ruth Abernathy, Allen Eaves and Connie Eaves pose with Till& McCulloch statue at Telus World of Science on Sunday

Fifty-five years after they became the first in the world to identify stem cells, Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch are now a must-see attraction at the Telus World of Science in Vancouver.

Artist Ruth Abernethy’s “portrait in bronze” of the two Canadian researchers was unveiled yesterday outside the main doors of the science centre. Within minutes, children were climbing the stools of the interactive artwork and clamouring to have their photos taken with the great men.

The work of art was commissioned by Dr. Allen Eaves, founder and CEO of STEMCELL Technologies Inc., Canada’s leading biotech company, to honour Till & McCulloch who are well known within the field as the Fathers of Stem Cell Science but virtually  unknown to most Canadians.  Dr. Eaves and his wife Dr. Connie Eaves, an internationally respected stem cell researcher, worked with Drs. Till and McCulloch decades ago at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto.

As Science World CEO Scott Sampson  said in his address to the crowd that gathered at Science World, the tribute is a reflection of new-found Canadian pride in our country’s outstanding achievements in a number of fields.

A sister statue will be unveiled in Toronto in the spring of 2017.

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06
Oct 2016
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Steer clear of clinics offering unproven treatments, experts warn

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Suppose you have a disease for which there currently is no cure.  You go online and find a stem cell clinic in the United States offering to rid you of the condition with their miraculous new treatment. …

Suppose you have a disease for which there currently is no cure.  You go online and find a stem cell clinic in the United States offering to rid you of the condition with their miraculous new treatment.  The clinic looks reputable enough and even has certified doctors on staff.  When you investigate further you find out that it will set you back somewhere between $15,000 and $25,000. What should you do?

“Steer clear of them,” advises Dr. Lawrence Goldstein, director of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego.  “They’re probably taking advantage of you and it’s probably unproven.”

Dr. Lawrence’s made the comments in an Orange Counter Register news feature this week that warns people “whose lives – or whose loved ones’ lives – have been upended by chronic or incurable conditions such as Parkinson’s” to be cautious about clinics offering unproven stem cell cure-alls.

“If somebody is telling you something that’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true,” says Dr. Sidney Golub, director of the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center at UC Irvine.

We have frequently used this blog to urge caution to those considering stem cell treatments abroad, especially in countries with less-stringent health regulations and clinics offering to treat a laundry list of diseases and conditions with the same stem cell “cure.”

But as the Register piece indicates, there are now nearly 600 clinics in the United States — just a quick drive or flight away for most Canadians — touting expensive stem cell treatments for everything from breast augmentation to spinal cord injuries.  Many use stem cells drawn from the patient’s own fat, arguing that such treatments don’t require approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Our website has a section on stem cell tourism.  You can find it here.  It links to an excellent guidebook produced by the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law,  Albany Medical College and the Stem Cell Network.  There is also a great web resource provided by the International Society for Stem Cell Research.  You can find it here.

Beyond the possibility of spending money on a treatment that does not work, there is always a risk that the procedure may have adverse side effects. “The risk is far greater than the potential benefit,” Mary Bass, a director of the patient advocacy group Americans for Cures, told the Register.

The FDA also warns that patients may be “vulnerable to unscrupulous providers of stem cell treatments that are illegal and potentially harmful.”

 

 

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28
Sep 2016
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Government asks academic council to report on state of regenerative medicine

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Two Federal Government departments — Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and Health Canada — have asked the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) to study and report back on the state of regenerative medicine in Canada.…

Two Federal Government departments — Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and Health Canada — have asked the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) to study and report back on the state of regenerative medicine in Canada.

“We are very pleased to receive this request from the Government,” says Dr. Eric M. Meslin, President and CEO of the CCA, in a media release. “Canada is a global leader in regenerative medicine and we look forward to contributing to the evidence base for making decisions about how this country can continue to excel in this incredibly important field of medicine.”

The council will conduct an “expert panel workshop” to address two key questions:

  • What are Canada’s strengths in regenerative medicine (and why are they strengths)?
  • What are the opportunities that exist and barriers that must be overcome for Canada to ensure that it can excel in regenerative medicine in the international arena?

“This is good news for advancing stem cell R&D,” says James Price President & CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, adding that the move shows that regenerative medicine is a priority for the Government.

“As the champion of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy, which would see more stem cell research leap the hurdle to clinical trials and new treatments, we applaud the Government for commissioning the workshop. We look forward to helping the CCA in any way possible.”

The CCA, a not-for-profit organization that undertakes independent, authoritative, evidence-based assessments to inform public policy, is assembling a multidisciplinary, multi-sectoral, group of experts to participate in the two-day workshop expected to take place in the coming weeks. The results will be published in early 2017.

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20
Sep 2016
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Dr. Shane Shapiro

Jury still out on BMAC treatment for knees

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Back in February, we  reported on how thousands of people are visiting hundreds of clinics in American cities and some Canadian centres to  get an expensive, unproven, same-day stem cell treatment to ease pain and restore flexibility in their arthritic or banged-up knees.…

Back in February, we  reported on how thousands of people are visiting hundreds of clinics in American cities and some Canadian centres to  get an expensive, unproven, same-day stem cell treatment to ease pain and restore flexibility in their arthritic or banged-up knees.

The BMAC (bone marrow aspirate concentrate) procedure involves extracting mesenchymal stem cells from a patient’s pelvis, spinning them in a centrifuge and then re-injecting them into the damaged knees. The treatment can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 per injection, even though there are no published reports from high-level clinical trials to indicate it works.

We are, however, getting  closer to knowing the truth.

Dr. Shane Shapiro, an orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Center for Regenerative Medicine in Jacksonville, Florida, has published the results of a 25-person clinical trial in which patients with osteoarthritis received  an injection of stem cells in one knee and a saline solution placebo in the other — unaware of which was which.

The results are less than conclusive. As reported in the American Journal of Sports Medicine:

“Study patients experienced a similar relief of pain in both BMAC- and saline-treated arthritic knees. Further study is required to determine the mechanisms of action, duration of efficacy, optimal frequency of treatments, and regenerative potential.”

According to Dr. Shapiro, this leads to two possible interpretations. One is that the BMAC procedure was no better than placebo (because both knees got equally better). The second is that stem cells have a systemic effect (which some animal and human studies suggest) and can go to where needed — so that stem cells injected into the left knee could also make the right knee feel better.

Dr. Shapiro stresses that his study doesn’t prove the latter.  It’s still just  a theory.

Clearly, what’s needed is a double-blind, randomized controlled clinical trial in which each participant is assigned to receive either the BMAC treatment or a placebo by chance with neither the patient nor the doctor knowing who gets which so that the results can be objectively compared. Until then, we won’t know whether the BMAC procedure actually relieves pain and repair knees.

It should also be noted that the Mayo clinic used the most promising stem cells for their injections. Instead of just drawing and concentrating bone marrow and then reinjecting it into the patient,  Dr. Shapiro’s team tracked the number of stem cells and tested their viability before injecting them into a patient’s knees. A patiently likely would not get that level of quality assurance from a busy clinic trying to treat as many patients as quickly as possible.

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15
Sep 2016
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Canada’s stem cell community ready to innovate

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When it comes to innovation, Canada’s stem cell community is ready to roll.

That’s the message conveyed in an opinion piece in iPolitics, the must-read publication for those involved in — or merely fascinated by — Canadian politics.…

When it comes to innovation, Canada’s stem cell community is ready to roll.

That’s the message conveyed in an opinion piece in iPolitics, the must-read publication for those involved in — or merely fascinated by — Canadian politics.

The article responds to the call from Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, for “fresh ideas and a joint action plan that will make innovation a national priority and put Canada on a firm path to long-term economic growth.”

The iPolitics piece points out that Canada’s stem cell community has “seen the writing on the wall, consulted, and forged a plan to act. It’s a blueprint designed to ensure our world-class talent grows here at home, that Canada reaps the economic rewards and that we remain a global leader in this sector. The Canadian Stem Cell Strategy has tremendous support across the country and is ready to be implemented.”

Three powerful voices united to co-author the article:

  • Peter MacKinnon, LLD, is President Emeritus of Athabasca University and former President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan. His national appointments include the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service and the Science, Technology and Innovation Council of Canada
  • Molly Shoichet, PhD,holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto. She was the North American recipient of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science in 2015
  • James Price, MBA,is President & CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation.

“We wanted to make it clear that by making the Strategy a component of its Innovation Agenda, the Government will be putting stem cells to work for Canada’s future,” said Mr. Price.  “Not only will this set things in motion for many more people to be treated with new therapies, it will boost the economy and assure that thousands of new high-quality jobs will be created in this burgeoning industry.”

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13
Sep 2016
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Across Canada, people pull for Jonathan Pitre

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Jonathan Pitre, Ottawa’s much-loved “Butterfly Boy,” has had to cope with daily pain that few of us could endure for his entire 16 years.…

Jonathan Pitre, Ottawa’s much-loved “Butterfly Boy,” has had to cope with daily pain that few of us could endure for his entire 16 years.

And while there is considerable hardship ahead as he waits to see whether his stem cell transplant takes, at least now there is hope.

Diagnosed shortly after birth with severe form of epidermolysis bullosa (EB), the term used for a group of diseases that cause the skin to break out in sores and blisters, Jonathan recently underwent nine days of chemotherapy at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis before receiving a bone marrow stem cell transplant last Thursday. That was followed by second round of chemotherapy to prevent complications from graft-versus-host disease.

Now he waits to see if the transplant triggers his body to begin producing new cells that can give his ravaged skin the chance to heal.

“The next three or four weeks are going to be a critical part of Jonathan’s treatment,” explains Andrew Duffy, who has told the young man’s courageous story so sensitively in the pages of the Ottawa Citizen, his words accompanied by powerful video and photographic images by Julie Oliver.

While there is no talk of curing Jonathan, stem cells are his best hope.  The  physician who is pioneering this treatment, Dr. Jakub Tolar, told the Citizen that the procedure comes with the possibility of “hundreds of complications” and that he “cannot promise success.”  However, in the best case scenario “the change is profound.”

Tina Boileau — Jonathan’s mother, constant caregiver and stem cell donor — has a simpler goal in mind for her son:  “A day without pain.”

Kids with EB are called “Butterfly Children” because their skin seems as fragile as that of a butterfly. There is currently no cure for EB. According to the U.S. Mayo Clinic, many patients with severe forms of EB die in childhood.  Others often succumb to skin cancer in young adulthood.

Across Canada, people are pulling for the remarkable young man who, throughout his battles with EB, has never lost his sense of humour, or his commitment to persevere.

An avid hockey fan, Jonathan drew national media attention when he was hired for one day to scout a game for the Ottawa Senators. He’s also the subject of a compelling TSN documentary in which he explained why he chose to become an ambassador for children like him who struggle with the disease and to campaign to raise money for research: “I wanted to start helping other people with EB.”

Even while suffering the nasty after-effects of chemo, Jonathan remains upbeat.  “We’re still here, obviously, and we’re still fighting — and that won’t change,” he told the Citizen on Monday.

 

 

 

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25
Aug 2016
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Dr. Shinya Yamanaka

Are we there yet?

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(This post is one of several addressing a single subject today in a blog carnival to mark the 10th anniversary of the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells.

(This post is one of several addressing a single subject today in a blog carnival to mark the 10th anniversary of the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells. Please click here to read what other bloggers have to say.)

As summer holidays wind down, most parents are now too familiar with the following question: Are we there yet?

Any family trip to a campground, cottage or Nana’s house in Northport starts off with excitement for all concerned, what with getting up early, packing the car and hitting the road. For kids, though, it’s magical. Then, after about an hour of travelling, regardless what onboard entertainment you’ve arranged, boredom sets in. Two hours into the trip, they’re sure you’re never going to get them there.

Waiting for stem cell discoveries to turn into actual treatments is a lot like that, except that instead of hours, it’s decades. Instead of frustration, the feeling is desperation.

Consider the remarkable discovery, by Japan’s Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, that adult cells extracted from skin can be reprogrammed to an embryonic stem-cell-like state to reproduce any cell required for transplant or to repair organs and tissue. We first heard about these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) on August 25, 2006. A decade later, we’re still waiting for the Nobel Prize-winning work to turn into treatments.

People, especially those suffering from life-threatening diseases, want to know why we’re still waiting. Unlike bored children, they have far more riding on the answer to the Are we there yet? question. For them, it’s life and death.

At the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t contact us seeking a stem cell treatment for themselves or a loved one. Today, it was a 48-year-old Toronto man whose doctor had told him his ALS will kill him. At least we could point him in the direction of Dr. Eva Feldman at the University of Michigan, who is trying to get a Phase 2 clinical trial going on a stem cell treatment for ALS.

In all areas of medical research, the wheel turns slowly. It can take decades of lab work and clinical trials and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring new treatments to patients. Consider cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women. In 1972, Germany’s Dr. Harald zur Hausen started working on the notion that the disease is caused by a virus. It took about 35 years — most of his career — for HPV vaccines to make it to market.

It’s even more complicated for stem cells, a relative newcomer to the scene. While their existence was proven in Canada by Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch in the early 1960s, the focus afterwards was on bone marrow stem cells for treating leukemia. Embryonic stem cells have only been in play since 1998. Realistically, iPS cells are still the new cells on the block.

Cell-based therapies represent a whole new way of thinking about treating diseases, and regenerative medicine is a disruptive technology. Unlike a vaccine or a drug, the actual therapy isn’t an easy thing to grasp for industry, whose commitment is crucial in moving things from the lab bench to the hospital bed.

What’s needed, then, is an innovative approach. We need to think bigger. That’s why our Foundation is championing the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy, a private/public partnership to deliver up to 10 new curative therapies to the clinic within 10 years. Crafted in consultation with 150 scientists, doctors, leaders from health charities, industry experts and philanthropists, it is backed by an in-depth KPMG study and endorsed by an international panel of experts.

The private sector is already at the table, pledging more than $350 million toward R&D — almost one-quarter of the $1.5-billion Strategy. Other industry partners, health charities and leading Canadian philanthropists are prepared to make major contributions upon demonstration of a federal commitment to the plan. We’re asking the Government of Canada, as part of its Innovation Agenda, to provide one-third, about $50 million annually over 10 years.

Are we there yet? Clearly not. But a coordinated national road map can get us there.

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23
Aug 2016
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Dr. Michael Rudnicki

Ottawa researcher receives $4.9 million grant

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Congratulations to Dr. Michael Rudnicki at The Ottawa Hospital who has been awarded $4.9 million to further his research into stem cells and muscle regeneration.…

Congratulations to Dr. Michael Rudnicki at The Ottawa Hospital who has been awarded $4.9 million to further his research into stem cells and muscle regeneration.

Dr. Rudnicki, who is also Scientific Director of the Stem Cell Network and a University of Ottawa professor, received the grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) as part of its Foundation funding competition to provide the country’s top health researchers with stable, long-term support.

His colleague Dr. Lynn Megeney also received funding, under CIHR’s Project competition, to study heart muscle regeneration and remodeling.

Dr. Rudnicki is one of the world’s leading researchers in stem cells and muscle regeneration. Last fall, his lab published a paper in Nature Medicine that could completely alter perceptions on how Duchenne muscular dystrophy happens — linking it to intrinsic defects in the function of muscle stem cells

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18
Aug 2016
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Coming soon: the stem cell blog carnival

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Summer isn’t really summer without a local fair or carnival to enjoy — a place you can have a variety of experiences, from riding bumper cars and tasting weird food treats to seeing expertly executed home crafts.…

Summer isn’t really summer without a local fair or carnival to enjoy — a place you can have a variety of experiences, from riding bumper cars and tasting weird food treats to seeing expertly executed home crafts.

Next week we will be adopting the carnival concept to discussing stem cells.  Organized by Stacey Johnson at the Canadian Centre for the Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), the Thursday, Aug. 25 blog carnival will feature blogs from across the stem cell research community — including this one — posting different perspectives on a single subject. Here’s what everyone will be blogging about:

It’s been 10 years since scientists Shinya Yamanaka and Kazutoshi Takahashi announced their discovery on Aug. 25, 2006 that adult cells could be reprogrammed into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to look and function like embryonic stem cells. In the decade since their discovery, converting this science into useful treatments for diseases like heart failure or diabetes has yet to be fully realized. When do you think this technology will result in commercial products or new revolutionary medical treatments, and why?

It all happens in one week’s time. You can find out more about the blog carnival at CCRM’s highly informative Signals blog.  Signals will be the site where, on Aug. 25, you can link to other writers’ unique insights on the subject.  Watch for it!

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09
Aug 2016
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Dr. Molly Shoichet

Breakthroughs can produce a lot of hope, but also frustration

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You read about a stem cell breakthrough that could lead to a whole new way of treating — maybe even curing — a disease. …

You read about a stem cell breakthrough that could lead to a whole new way of treating — maybe even curing — a disease. Then … nothing happens.

The gap in time between a medical science discovery and actual clinical application can seem like a millennium, especially if you are living with the disease in question.

This week in the Toronto Star, Dr. Molly Shoichet articulately — and compassionately — explains why it takes so long to move from the “Eureka!” moment in the research lab to a “We can treat this” scenario at the hospital bed.

She knows first-hand, having worked with a University of Toronto team including Drs. Derek van der Kooy,  Cindi Morshead, Brian Ballios and Michael Cooke that created a hydrogel to help transplanted stem cells thrive in the brain and eye. By injecting photoreceptor cells, the team was able to restore vision by approximately 15% in blind mice.

Their 2015 discovery garnered plenty of media attention, sparking hope that people with macular degeneration — a currently incurable condition — could have a new treatment. More than a year later, no such treatment is available or even on the horizon.

“For many people with macular degeneration, or any degenerative disease for that matter, studies like mine often produce a lot of hope, but also frustration that the ‘product’ is not available to them,” she writes in the Star.

As Dr. Shoichet explains, it can easily take 17 years or more to move a discovery from the lab to the patient.  It takes lots of testing with animals before a new treatment can safely move to the three stages of human clinical trials, with all the attendant regulatory controls and approvals.  It involves plenty of hard, painstaking work. And it costs lots of money.

But Dr. Shoichet remains optimistic. The opportunity to improve the lives of people with deadly diseases is what drives scientists to get up in the morning and get to work.  As she writes, “I am optimistic we will deliver on the promise of regenerative medicine — but it won’t happen right away.”

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