Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine

Jul 2016

Dr. Duncan Stewart

Q&A with Duncan Stewart, new head of the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine

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Dr.  Duncan Stewart is one of the busiest people in regenerative medicine in Canada.  An internationally respected cardiac specialist, he leads a three-city clinical trial investigating the potential benefits of genetically enhanced stem cells in healing severe heart attacks. …

Dr.  Duncan Stewart is one of the busiest people in regenerative medicine in Canada.  An internationally respected cardiac specialist, he leads a three-city clinical trial investigating the potential benefits of genetically enhanced stem cells in healing severe heart attacks.  He also heads research at The Ottawa Hospital and teaches at the University of Ottawa.  Dr.  Stewart was recently named President and Scientific Director of the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine (OIRM).

Q: Along with your research, clinical work and teaching, you’ve now taken on the role of Scientific Director for OIRM.  How do you juggle it all?

A: It’s a matter of prioritization.  My day job is here at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) and that’s a fairly significant operation because we’re one of the largest in Canada now.  I have a wonderful team here; it’s well set up and it can be done reasonably.

My clinical practice is really a hobby right now.  I see patients in a clinic that specializes in what I’m interested in: pulmonary hypertension and serious cardiac heart problems.  It’s personally rewarding; it keeps me sane and I can do something where I think I’ve made a difference.  But it’s about a half-a-day a week.  I don’t do much teaching … two or three or four courses a year.

I love doing research.  I thought that when I took on these other responsibilities maybe I’d have to reduce that, but I’ve been successful at getting funding and the projects have been successful, so it’s larger.  It’s aligned with the other things I do.  The priorities of the OHRI are well aligned with the kind of research I do and the new opportunity with the OIRM, again, is very aligned.

Q: What are you excited about in the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine?

A: I’m excited about moving it more into the clinic.  But we have to be realistic about the expectations.  When we’re doing these clinical trials, we are doing them to learn.  There are all kinds of issues we have to get right in order to unlock the real potential of these therapies.  It’s going to take a fair bit of work and a number of clinical trials and going back to the bench to refine approaches before we get to the point where we can do the dramatic things we hope to do.

If you look at the pace of development for other disruptive technologies, in the early stages they didn’t look that fantastic.  It’s similar to the early days of the personal computer.  It was very frustrating.  You did it for fun, really, for word processing, but it was hardly earth-shaking.  Now you look at a PC and it can do what NASA used to do with a great big mainframe.  A smartphone can do absolutely everything.  The technology has evolved to the point where it’s changed the whole landscape.

I think that’s true also in the cell and gene therapy space.  When I look at what’s going on in our lab and what’s going on globally, there is so much opportunity to advance this and improve the sophistication.  The potential is just huge.  What we’re doing in clinical trials, because we’re doing things that are well-tested and safe, tends to be using technologies that were developed 10 years ago.  So it’s well behind the cutting edge of where the field is going.  It takes that much time to get to clinical trials.  I think what we’re looking for is more proof of principle, where we can — in a modest way — achieve some of our goals and learn where the opportunities are to make things better.

Q: So the key is to move into clinical trials?

A: It’s important even when you’re at the early stages of development of technologies, in a safe and responsible way, to get the experience in the context of the patient population that has the disease.  Because you can never model all this completely in the lab.  You may have a great technology, but unless you can use it in the real world patient population you could have a problem.

A good example is autologous cell therapy (therapies in which the patient’s own stem cells are used).  For the chronic diseases we want to treat with regenerative approaches, we’re usually dealing with older patients who have risk factors and various diseases.  All that reduces their regenerative activity of their own cells: their stem cells aren’t very good.  So, you can do all the testing you want in young, healthy models but you’ve got to get at that problem.  We need to find why these cells don’t work and what we can do to recover activity.  Induced pluripotent stem cell technology (drawing cells from skin and reprogramming them back to an embryonic stem cell-like state) not only produces a pluripotent stem cell, it turns the age back to zero.  There are other issues with that in terms of safety and whether it’s ready for prime time, but there are already clinical trials starting with that technology.  That’s one way.  There are other ways, maybe more subtle ways, to recover regenerative activity.  These are the issues that come to the fore when you start to translate therapies into clinical trials.

Q: There is some frustration that things haven’t moved faster.  Stem cells have been touted as being able to cure a number of diseases and that it’s going to happen soon.  What’s holding the field back?

A: The frustration is probably our own doing: we bought into the hype or generated the hype too much.  We need to set the expectations at a realistic level.  It does no good to say we’re going to cure a disease with an approach when we’re not really there yet.  It’s important that we do the clinical trials.  It’s important to understand what benefit we get, if any, with a simple, early therapy so we can start improving it.  But we need to understand that this is going to be a somewhat incremental process at the beginning.  It’s not going to be earth-shattering and necessarily curative in the first iteration.  Setting that expectation will decrease that frustration.

The reality is, this takes time.  It’s a very different activity to be moving these approaches into clinical trials than doing the fundamental research.  People who have made major discoveries are not necessarily equipped or have the ability or interest to move them into clinical trials.

What does work well is a team approach.  You have the innovative scientist who makes the discovery as an important part of that team.  But a lot of what has to be done to translate that into a clinical trial is the preclinical research needed for regulatory submissions — which is not the exciting kind you publish in Nature.  It’s a different skill set than is normal in a discovery lab.  And you need people who understand the disease and where the therapy should best be targeted.  You need people who understand what kind of trial needs to be done to get the right answers.  It takes a lot of people who have complementary expertise who come together in a translational research program and say ‘OK, we think this is potentially going to make a big difference.  This is how we’re going to move it forward in a safe, responsible and effective manner.’ Coincidentally, this is exactly what OIRM is doing, funding these team grants to develop translational teams.

Q: What do you see as OIRM’s role?

A: Ontario is a big player in Canada in this space.  We’re not the whole story but were a big part of the story.  There is tremendous talent.  What OIRM can do is help people understand how to move this forward, how to build these teams.  It’s education: bringing in experts who have had success and helping these teams move forward, helping them build in the areas where they need to build.  It’s not always intuitive.  I see OIRM as a real catalyst.  It also has a role to shepherd these activities in the right direction so there’s the greatest chance of success.



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May 2016

Stem Cells 101 concludes successful run with Ottawa event

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Dr. Bill Stanford addresses the audience at  Tuesday’s Stem Cells 101 event in Ottawa   (CBC Photo)

Across Ontario, hundreds of people have a stronger appreciation of stem cells, thanks to the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (OIRM) Stem Cell 101 — The Promise and Potential.…

Dr. Bill Stanford at Stem Cells 101 (CBC Photo)

Dr. Bill Stanford addresses the audience at  Tuesday’s Stem Cells 101 event in Ottawa   (CBC Photo)

Across Ontario, hundreds of people have a stronger appreciation of stem cells, thanks to the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (OIRM) Stem Cell 101 — The Promise and Potential.

The spring lecture series — featuring world-leading scientists explaining the field, talking about their research and discussing the ethical issues involved — concluded last night in Ottawa where an audience of about 100 listened, asked thoughtful questions and exchanged ideas with the experts.

Co-sponsored by the University of Ottawa and The Ottawa Hospital, Tuesday’s event followed similar free-to-the-public sessions in London, Hamilton and Toronto held in partnership with Western University, McMaster University and SickKids Hospital, respectively.

At each event, local scientists addressed such questions as: “What is a stem cell?”  “What’s new in stem cell research?” “What kinds of treatments are using stem cells today?”  “What is stem cell tourism?”

At last night’s session, Dr. Bill Stanford, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, told the audience how he left an uncertain regulatory environment in the United States, where President George W. Bush had imposed a ban on federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell lines, to come to work in Canada. President Barack Obama lifted the ban, but Dr. Stanford chose to stay in Ottawa, he told CBC News, because “here in Ottawa people work together instead of working by themselves and that makes things go much faster and better.”

As part of his discussion on ethics, Dr Jeff Blackmer, Vice-President of Medical Professionalism at the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), focused on private versus public banking of umbilical cord blood, which provides a rich and non-controversial supply of stem cells for transplant.  He noted that private cord blood banks, which charge significant collection fees and annual storage fees, can contain an implied messages in their advertising that parents who don’t use their services are letting their children down.  While such a decision is a personal one, he noted that public cord blood banking reflects the spirit of universal health care. Canada’s Cord Blood Bank now operates in four cities.

Asked about when new therapies will make it to the clinic, The Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Harry Atkins said that while the field is progressing rapidly, significant technological challenges remain.  That makes it difficult to predict whether a new treatment might become available, he said, noting that in some cases “it could be two years, it could be a decade.”

(Note: The Spring edition of our Cellections newsletter features some of the leading-edge stem cell research underway in Ottawa. Subscribe here, by clicking on “Newsletter.”)

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Jan 2016

Drew Lyall

Stem cell community loses a treasured friend

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The stem cell community is mourning the loss of one of its most cherished champions, Andrew David Lyall.

Mr. Lyall — Drew to all who knew him — was the inaugural executive director of the Stem Cell Network and, over 12 years, helped build it into an internationally respected research and development powerhouse.…

The stem cell community is mourning the loss of one of its most cherished champions, Andrew David Lyall.

Mr. Lyall — Drew to all who knew him — was the inaugural executive director of the Stem Cell Network and, over 12 years, helped build it into an internationally respected research and development powerhouse. He died at the Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital in Ottawa on Saturday a few days shy of his 50th birthday after an eight-year battle with melanoma.

“He did more than anyone who wasn’t a scientist to advance the field of stem cells in Canada,” said James Price, President and CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, where Mr. Lyall previously served as a director. “He emulated the spirt of collaboration that can be traced back to James Till and Ernest McCulloch and that has been vital to the field’s success over the past 15 years.”

Dr. TilI, the surviving partner of the research duo that proved the existence of stem cells more than 50 years ago, credited Mr. Lyall with persuading stem cell scientists across Canada to integrate their efforts. “Drew played a crucial role in the success of the Network, which built an extraordinary community of researchers and scholars. It also played an important role in the establishment of several other innovative initiatives, such as the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation. The impact will be felt for years to come.”

While dealing with his own imminent death, Mr. Lyall remained a model of calm dignity.  He kept friends up to date via a lively and often funny private blog. When his treatment shifted from therapeutic to palliative care he was realistic but unfailingly upbeat. He posted that he had “enjoyed a life to be very grateful for” and encouraged friends to write letters to their own children, as he had done, telling them “what you value about them, the good times you have had, and things you wished you had done together.”  An organizer to the end, he used his time in the hospice to create a namesake fund at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation.

Dr. Connie Eaves, a leading stem cell scientist who helped put the Stem Cell Network together, recalled how Mr. Lyall made an indelible impression during his job interview.

Ron Worton (the Network’s founding Scientific Director) briefed me about Drew just before we were to interview him — me by teleconference — for the top position in the admin group. Drew’s intelligence and thoughtfulness, combined with that irresistible enthusiasm for working in the discovery arena with not too many rules, were captivating. We were so lucky he came on board. The world has lost a very special and good person.”

Mr. Lyall’s influence was felt well beyond Canada’s borders. A founder of the International Consortium of Stem Cell Networks, he worked closely with colleagues around the world, urging them to pool their talents in the service of finding cures and saving lives.

“It was his unique leadership style that allowed all of these different countries to come together and share a joint perspective of what was possible,” said Nancy Witty, CEO of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. “There were few people who could bring his special personality to making all of us friends and colleagues that care about one another.”

That style might best be described as disarmingly casual, relaxed bordering on rumpled. He could step up to a conference podium unfazed that his shirttail was untucked and enthrall an audience with an engaging presentation delivered in a butterscotch brogue that had lost none of its flavour since he relocated to Canada from Scotland in late 1992.

“He was unbelievably intelligent, but you didn’t necessarily realize it right away because he was not the pressed, corporate type,” said Shannon Sethuram, who worked closely with Mr. Lyall at the Stem Cell Network for five years and more recently at BioCanRx, another federally funded research network.  “There was something very casual about him that spoke to his confidence in who he was. He was, bar none, the best person I have ever worked with.”

Mr. Lyall was born on Jan. 21, 1966 in Edinburgh. He was the son of David Lyall, a Presbyterian minister, and Margaret Lyall and a brother to Catherine Slatter. He studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford but was an accountant by profession. He relocated to Canada to be closer to Suzanne Loch, an Ottawa school teacher he had met while travelling. They married in 1993 and have two children Heather, 15, and Matthew, 12.

“Drew was just passing through Canada when he met Suzanne on a train, and, being totally and understandably charmed, he decided to extend his stay,” said Patrick Lafferty, a mentor to Drew when he came to work at the Ottawa office of Coopers & Lybrand (which later became Pricewaterhouse Coopers — PwC).  “Our United Kingdom  firm had an enviable model of hiring the best and brightest liberal arts graduates from their leading universities and then teaching them accounting and auditing. Drew would happily accept any challenge as an opportunity, begin thinking it through, come back a few days later, challenge some of the assumptions, and then offer some real insights on how to best pull it off.”

Mr. Lafferty admired Mr. Lyall’s zest for life. “From the beginning, he threw himself into his first baseball game, his first hockey game, every office party, charity fundraising and sporting event,  and of course, into his delightful wedding to Suzanne.”

Though not particularly athletic — he played recreational soccer and took skating lessons — Mr. Lyall was an avid sports fan who faithfully followed long-suffering Hibernian FC of North Edinburgh’s Leith. The “Hibs,” he wrote in his blog, “haven’t won the main Scottish cup for 114 years now.” He knew they were not very good, said close friend Randy McIntyre, “but he was quite proud of them.” In Canada, he quickly adopted American football, travelling to Wisconsin to see his beloved Green Bay Packers play and purchase Cheesehead hats for his children.  Over the Christmas holidays, he was able to leave the hospice for a morning of watching “footie” with friends over a full English breakfast at an Ottawa pub. He tracked the ups and downs of the Ottawa Senators right up to a few days before his death.

Mr. Lyall travelled extensively, visiting more than 80 countries, but left the world regretting that he was never able to visit Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel of Peru’s Andes Mountains. A voracious reader, he Lyall, could speak as knowledgeably about the popular novels of Nick Hornby as he could debate Clayton M. Christensen’s theories on the impact of disruptive technologies on established industries.

With no science training to speak of, he quickly grasped the subtleties of the complex field he championed. A quiet but persuasive force, Mr. Lyall didn’t feel the need to be regarded as the smartest person in the room. “But he often was,” said Dr. Michael Rudnicki, the Stem Cell Network’s Scientific Director and CEO. “True leaders don’t bully their way forward. They prepare the ground. He was a builder who wanted to do great things.”

Dr. Rudnicki believes Mr. Lyall’s professional legacy is the community of stem cell scientists spread across Canada who agreed to work together collaboratively under the Network banner. “The nature of the community reflected who he was and how he dealt with people.”

Dr. Janet Rossant, President and Executive Director of the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, agreed. “Drew was a true stem cell hero,” she said. “He was the glue that brought the Network together, whether driving the science, advocating on the Hill for a cord blood stem cell bank, or leading the party at the annual Network pub night.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Prof. Tim Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. “A master at bringing people together, Drew did much to help build Canada’s stem cell community. He always seemed to be at its centre.” And by Dr. Sam Weiss, Director of the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute: “Drew was a warm and wonderful person to know, have a drink with and to share the achievements of collaboration and friendship.”

Mr. Lyall was one of the key people responsible for getting stem cell researchers to embrace the concept of commercializing their work so that it could be carried forward to clinical therapies. Dr. Michael May, President and CEO of the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine said his organization, spun out of the Network, wouldn’t exist without Mr. Lyall’s contributions.

“Drew played a critical role in having the academic community embrace us, helping facilitate connections with the academic partners,” said Dr. May. “He helped me, personally, make those founding connections within the Canadian community and abroad too. He was very generous with his time, his insights and his network.”

Mr. Lyall also helped develop CellCAN, the Regenerative Medicine and Cell Therapy Network, created to accelerate progress in cell-based therapies. “Drew and the Stem Cell Network have been a driving force in uniting the centres involved in cell manufacturing and enabling the translation of findings at the bench to patients in need of novel and efficient therapies,” said Dr. Dénis Claude Roy, CellCAN’s CEO. “Drew’s trust and involvement were crucial to generate CellCAN.”

Mr. Lyall, who was also an alumnus of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, left the Stem Cell Network in 2013 to become a director general with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. However, he was lured away last year when Dr. John Bell launched BioCanRx to advance anti-cancer biotherapeutics.

“Early on, I approached Drew for some quick tips about how best to put together a network proposal,” said Dr. Bell. “I left with a lot more than advice. Drew instilled in me a vision of what a network could be and the value it could bring to cancer patients. Once we were awarded the grant, I knew I needed a great CEO to make it all it could be. In almost no time, Drew was able to bring together a very experienced and motivated team and get BioCanRx launched, which reflected how much people enjoyed working with him. Every day I worked with my friend Drew was fun — he had an awesome sense of humour — and made me confident that BioCanRx will be a success.”

Prof. Bartha Maria Knoppers, Director of the Centre of Genomics and Policy at McGill University, admired Mr. Lyall for “always reaching out beyond borders and disciplines,” and saw him as “a true gentleman whose candour and insight immediately attracted trust and participation.”

Dr. Fabio Rossi, Acting Director of the University of British Columbia’s Biomedical Research Centre, said Mr. Lyall was one of the most charming people he ever worked with. “His infectious optimism and enthusiasm motivated all around him. He truly was the Network’s centre of gravity, and responsible for much of the cohesion that made it a success.”

Dr. Rudnicki, who worked side by side with Mr. Lyall for many years at the Network, said his death marks a tremendous loss not just to his family, friends and colleagues, but for health science. “He had so much more to contribute.”

(Joe Sornberger, Director of Communications Programs for the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, is the author of Dreams & Due Diligence — Till and McCulloch’s Stem Cell Discovery and Legacy. The quotes included here were collected through interviews and email correspondence.)


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Jul 2015

Stem cell co-discoverer Dr. James Till at left with Dr. Peter Zandstra (CBC News)

$114-million research investment builds stem cell momentum

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Today’s announcement that the federal government will invest $114 million over seven years in the University of Toronto’s “Medicine by Design” research initiative comes as exciting news to every Canadian excited about the potential of regenerative medicine to save lives.…

Today’s announcement that the federal government will invest $114 million over seven years in the University of Toronto’s “Medicine by Design” research initiative comes as exciting news to every Canadian excited about the potential of regenerative medicine to save lives.

This is a significant momentum-builder for the field,” says James Price, President and CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation. “It is great to see our country developing the assets it needs to make it increasingly possible to implement the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan.”

The Foundation supported the grant application – part of the federal government’s $1.5-billion Canada First Research Excellence Fund for universities and colleges – when the bid was submitted last winter. The Honourable Ed Holder, Minister of State (Science and Technology) made the announcement in Toronto.

“Stem cells offer avenues to treat – and perhaps cure – devastating and costly illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, blindness, lung disease, neurodegenerative disorders, and diseases of the blood and musculoskeletal system,” Dr. Peter Zandstra, a Medicine by Design leader and member of the Foundation’s Science Leadership Council, says in the Government of Canada’s press release.

The Strategy & Action Plan, developed by a coalition of researchers, medical professionals, health charities, industry leaders and philanthropists, sets the course for Canada to lead the way in delivering up to 10 new curative therapies within 10 years.  The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, both partners in the Medicine by Design initiative, played key roles in developing the Strategy.

Mr. Price calls Medicine by Design an important research-focused step toward building a vibrant regenerative medicine ecosystem that can deliver new therapies to the clinic. “We look forward to working with the University of Toronto on this important project.”


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Dec 2014

A wish for all Canadians

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By Stacey Johnson, Director of Communications, Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine

There is much joy and celebration in becoming a centenarian.…


By Stacey Johnson, Director of Communications, Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine

There is much joy and celebration in becoming a centenarian. This March, my grandmother turns 100. If she had one wish, I know it would be for renewed physical vitality. Her mind is strong, but her body is giving out.

Despite huge progress in research, there won’t be a cure for age-related macular degeneration in time for her to benefit, nor will she be able to replace her electronic pacemaker with one made from stem cells, but she’s excited by the promise of stem cell research, even if it won’t impact her directly.

Now is a time for optimism in the regenerative medicine (RM) field, especially in Canada. In October, the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation announced its national Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan and barely a month later, the Province of Ontario awarded $3.1 million to launch the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine (OIRM).

The regenerative medicine community in Canada is very connected thanks to more than a decade’s worth of targeted encouragement from the federal government – in the form of funding – and efforts by the Canadian Stem Cell Network to break down silos and promote collaboration. With all the key stakeholders working together to develop products and shepherd them through clinical trials to reach patients, the community has research excellence and political will on its side.

The Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), a unique not-for-profit group that is solely focused on developing and commercializing RM technologies, was involved with both of the recent announcements. The goal of the Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan is to produce five to 10 therapies within the next 10 years. The OIRM has been established to translate stem cell research into curative therapies for major degenerative diseases. CCRM is the commercialization partner for both groups and is co-leading OIRM with the Ontario Stem Cell Initiative.

With an aging population and Canadian health care costs – direct and indirect – estimated at $190 billion annually, finding treatments and cures is imperative. The Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, OIRM and CCRM will coordinate efforts to move promising stem cell treatments from the bench to the bedside.

My grandmother is unlikely to see cures in her lifetime, but success is feeling closer every day. And that’s something worth celebrating.

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