Stem Cells

08
Dec 2014
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Teenager tackles tough subjects with videos

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The amazing thing about two new videos that explain how wounds heal and scars form isn’t just that they convey these complex physiological processes so clearly that almost anyone can understand them.…

The amazing thing about two new videos that explain how wounds heal and scars form isn’t just that they convey these complex physiological processes so clearly that almost anyone can understand them.

The videos — which have almost 285,000 viewings combined — were created by someone who, just months ago, was a high school student in his hometown of Calgary.

Sarthak Sinha

Sarthak Sinha

Sarthak Sinha, now an 18-year-old freshman in the University of Toronto’s life sciences program, wrote the videos after getting the go-head from the people who run TED Ed, an educational website extension of the popular TED Talks series.

Sarthak has been fascinated with wound healing since age 14, when he started volunteering after school, on weekends and during summers in the University of Calgary laboratory of Dr. Jeff Biernaskie.  Dr. Biernaskie, who was featured in our blog on stem cells and baldness, helped in looking over the editorial content for the videos. Other than that, it was all Sarthak.

“The biggest challenge was to translate the knowledge in a scientifically accurate way that can be understood at a readership level of a Grade 6 student,” says Sarthak “Not a lot of people are able to get past the jargon and access the information. It was a simple attempt at bridging that gap.”

Working with animators over three-and-a-half months to produce the videos was a rewarding experience, says Sarthak. “Bringing the ideas to life, that’s the real beauty of it,” he says.

 

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10
Nov 2014
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Carlo Fidani,

It makes economic sense

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Why the CEO of Orlando Corp. believes we need a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy

Supporting health research comes naturally to Carlo Fidani.…

Why the CEO of Orlando Corp. believes we need a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy

Supporting health research comes naturally to Carlo Fidani. It’s in his blood.

“My grandfather was a benevolent man” says Mr. Fidani, Chair and CEO of the Orlando Corporation, one of the oldest and most successful construction and real estate development companies in Canada. “Even in the Depression, when we he didn’t have much, he found ways to help people.”

His father, Orey Fidani, inherited the generosity gene and “felt that investing in health care was something he could do to help the most people.” He passed the character trait along to Carlo, who has taken things to new heights.  In 2011, responding to the shortage of doctors in Ontario, Mr. Fidani contributed $10 million toward the University of Toronto’s Terrence Donnelly Health Sciences Complex to train more students to become MDs. He has also made major donations to advance cancer and mental health research and treatment.

He supports the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan, “because the promise of stem cells is massive.” The man whose company controls more than 40 million square feet of commercial real estate in the Greater Toronto Area sees beyond potential stem cell cures and treatments. He sees the science yielding significant economic dividends.

“The medical aspect of the stem cell is only a part of it. It’s also the economics. If we can reverse the damage of a heart attack, or help someone out who has Parkinson’s or repair a spine, can you imagine what that would do to for the financial model of our health care system?”

Noting that Canada “has always been at the epicentre of stem cell science,” he sees stem cell R&D boosting our economy by creating high-quality jobs. “It’s important from the economics perspective that we continue to find drivers of employment for highly talented people. If we want to consider ourselves a knowledge-based society, this to me is a perfect landing pad for future opportunities.”

To make it all work, though, will mean bringing together the stem cell scientists, the federal and provincial governments and Canadian industry – all pooling their resources and expertise to create and implement the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy.

“It’s no different than running a business. If we have a national strategy we’re going to be far more productive.  Right now the stem cell community is not getting the financial support it needs. In Canada, we can do more with a dollar than virtually any other country in the world.  My sense is that’s why the Strategy is so critical. If we have the ability to do that – if we have the support –  we can produce some particularly spectacular results.”

 

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03
Nov 2014
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First patient gets cell-based treatment for diabetes

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In a recent blog post, we reported a prediction by the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Tim Kieffer that it is “only a matter of time” before stem cells provide the needed source of cells to replace insulin injections.…

CIRM Screen Capture

In a recent blog post, we reported a prediction by the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Tim Kieffer that it is “only a matter of time” before stem cells provide the needed source of cells to replace insulin injections. He’s confident this will occur within 10 years.

One way it could happen is now being tested in a clinical trial at the University of California, San Diego Health System, where an American company called ViaCyte has successfully implanted its first patient with a device to treat type 1 diabetes.  Not only does ViaCyte have a Canadian connection, the exciting news from California underscores the importance of Canada implementing the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan.

The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which has supported ViaCyte in its work, blogged about the VC-01, describing it as “about the length and thickness of a credit card but only half as wide.” Implanted under the skin, the device’s progenitor cells secrete insulin whenever they detect that blood sugar is high, restoring glycemic harmony. While it can move out the insulin as needed, the device stops the immune system from moving in and destroying the insulin-producing cells.

These are, of course, early days: the primary object of the trial is to see if the device is safe, if patients can tolerate it with no adverse effects. And if they can, does it, in fact, treat their diabetes?

That said, CIRM’s leaders are understandably chuffed. The news “that this is now truly out of the lab and being tested in patients is an important step in a long road to showing that it works in patients.”  They urge cautious optimism: “The people at ViaCyte, who have been working hard on this project for many years, know that they still have a long way to go but for today at least, this step probably feels a little bit more like a skip for joy.”

What’s the Canadian connection? ViaCyte has one of the world’s top insulin experts as a scientific advisor: Dr. James Shapiro, Director of the Clinical Islet Transplant Program at the University of Alberta. In the 1990s, Dr. Shapiro co-developed the Edmonton Protocol, a procedure for implementing pancreatic islets for the treatment of type 1 diabetes.

Canada has been a leader in diabetes research since the early 1920s, when Drs. Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered insulin. The more recent work done by Dr. Shapiro and the University of Alberta team, and stem cell experts like Dr. Kieffer and the University of Toronto’s Dr. Derek van der Kooy, who first isolated pancreatic stem cells, has kept Canada at the forefront.

But, as Dr. Alan Bernstein told the Globe and Mail last week at the launch of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan, “the rest of the world is not standing still.”

California has invested $3 billion in stem cell R&D. The CIRM/ViaCyte news is proof the investment is  yielding significant dividends.

“We risk slowing down our investment while the rest of the world is speeding up, so relatively we will fall further and further behind,” Dr. Bernstein, Chair of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation,  told the Globe. “This sort of research and the clinical trials are both long-term [prospects]. They need sustained investment and they are expensive.”

The Strategy & Action Plan plots a course for Canada to lead the way in delivering up to 10 new treatments for diseases to the clinic within 10 years that could transform the health care landscape. Find out more about the Strategy here.

 

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08
Oct 2014
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International Stem Cell Awareness Day 2014

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Today marks the Seventh International Stem Cell Awareness Day, an international celebration inaugurated by California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. Scientists and organizations across the globe have an opportunity to raise public awareness of the current state of stem cell research and to share their hopes for the future advances in the field.…

Today marks the Seventh International Stem Cell Awareness Day, an international celebration inaugurated by California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. Scientists and organizations across the globe have an opportunity to raise public awareness of the current state of stem cell research and to share their hopes for the future advances in the field.

The discovery of stem cells in 1961 by Canada’s Dr. James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch represented a revolution in the field of health care. Stem cells have the potential to cure diseases, regenerate organs, prevent heart attacks, defeat diabetes and more. Significant progress in research has been made since then: stem cells have been used to treat leukemia, multiple myeloma and other blood cancers. However, much work lies ahead, as most clinical trials are still in their early stages.

Several international events will be taking place today and in the days to come. Click here to find out more.

Ben Paylor, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia and the producer of StemCellShorts will be presenting a webinar entitled “The Science of Regenarative Medicine” at 12 pm ET. Click here for details.

And if you want to discover more about stem cells, check some of our resources:

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07
Oct 2014
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Dr. Alan Bernstein

Foundation’s leader named to Medical Hall of Fame

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Dr. Alan Bernstein, Chair of the Board of Directors for the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, has received perhaps the highest national honour in medicine: membership in the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.…

Dr. Alan Bernstein, Chair of the Board of Directors for the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, has received perhaps the highest national honour in medicine: membership in the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

Dr. Bernstein, whose career encompasses success in both conducting outstanding research and creating the right conditions for outstanding research to be done, is one of six leading researchers and medical practitioners who will be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame April 23 in Winnipeg.

“The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame is proud to welcome these six medical heroes as honoured members,” Dr. Jean Gray, the Hall’s Chair. Gray, said in a press release. “Their contributions to health in Canada and the world are well documented and their induction to The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame is richly deserved.”

An internationally respected scientist, Dr. Bernstein made important discoveries in stem cell and cancer research, publishing more than 225 papers and advancing the understanding of the Friend virus in leukemia.  His stem cell roots run deep: he did his PhD studies at the University of Toronto with Dr. James Till who, with research partner Dr. Ernest McCulloch, had discovered stem cells in the early 1960s.

As director of the Mount Sinai’s Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute (now the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute) he built the institute into one of the leading research facilities in the world.  A Gairdner Wightman Award winner and Order of Canada member, he led the transformation of health research in Canada as the founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and oversaw a close to three-fold increase in Canada’s budget for health research.

After serving as CIHR’s leader for seven years, during which time he refocused and energized the Canadian health research community, Dr. Bernstein went on to head the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise.  He now serves as President and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which brings together almost  400 of Canada’s and the world’s best researchers to address questions of importance to the world.

“Alan is one of the giants of Canadian health research,” said Foundation President and CEO James Price. “With his lifetime of achievements, he truly deserves this outstanding honour. We’re delighted to congratulate him and feel extremely fortunate to have him guiding our Foundation as Board Chair.”

The other inductees include:

  • Dr. Judith G. Hall, a pediatrician and geneticist who has been at the international forefront of here field for more than four decades;
  • Dr. Bernard Langer, a global pioneer of hepatobiliary/pancreatic (HPB) surgery who developed a world-leading academic HPB and liver transplant service at Toronto General Hospital;
  • the late Dr. John McCrae, the co-author of the influential Text-Book of Pathology for Students of Medicine  and author of  In Flanders Fields;
  • Dr. Julio Montaner,  who led an international consortium of investigators to test the viability of a novel drug combination called ‘highly active antiretroviral therapy’ (HAART) to suppress HIV replication; and
  • Dr. Duncan G. Sinclair, an internationally recognized leader in health care reform.
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02
Oct 2014
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Dr. Timothy Kieffer

A step closer to curing diabetes

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The news that Dr. Timothy Kieffer’s team at the University of British Columbia, in collaboration with New Jersey based BetaLogics, has found a faster way to create insulin-producing cells is the latest example of how Canada has been a world leader in fighting type 1 diabetes.…

The news that Dr. Timothy Kieffer’s team at the University of British Columbia, in collaboration with New Jersey based BetaLogics, has found a faster way to create insulin-producing cells is the latest example of how Canada has been a world leader in fighting type 1 diabetes.

It was Canadian Sir Frederick Banting, working with medical student Charles Best, who discovered insulin in 1922 — a breakthrough that has rescued the lives of millions of diabetics around the world.  In the late 1990s, a team of researchers and doctors at the University of Alberta developed the Edmonton Protocol, a procedure for implanting pancreatic islets to treat patients with type 1 diabetes mellitus. However, widespread adoption of the protocol has been limited by the shortage of donor tissue — it can take as many as three donated pancreases for each patient.  Also, recipients need to take strong immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection of the transplanted cells.

What Dr. Kieffer and his collaborators have come up with — a protocol to turn stem cells into reliable, insulin-producing cells in about six weeks, far quicker than the four months it took using previous methods — represents a significant advance.  It brings scientists a step closer to being able to produce an unlimited supply of insulin-producing cells to treat this devastating disease that affects more than 2 million Canadians and almost 400 million people worldwide.

According to a UBC media release, the protocol transforms stem cells into insulin-secreting pancreatic cells, called S7 cells, via a cell-culture method. The conversion is completed after the cells are transplanted into a host. Tested on mice, the transplanted cells were successful in rapidly reversing diabetes.

We asked Dr. Kieffer to answer a few questions about the discovery, the results of which have been published in Nature Biotechnology, which you can read here. Here’s what he had to say:

Question: What’s the key advance here – that you can now make insulin producing cells much more quickly or that you can reverse diabetes so effectively?

Answer: The key advance with our work is the development of culture conditions to extend the maturation of the cells well beyond the pancreatic progenitor stage that we and others have previously achieved.  The cells have many characteristics of mature insulin producing beta-cells at the time we transplant them, and thus are able reverse diabetes in about one-quarter the time needed with pancreatic progenitor cells, and with only one-quarter of the cell dose.

Question:  You developed the protocol for these S7 cells with mice. How far away are you from human trials?

Answer: The protocol for cultivating the cells was developed with humans in mind, not mice.  Therefore, human cells and scalable methods for cell manufacturing were used.  Testing the cells in mice with diabetes represents an important and necessary step on the path to clinical trials.  It will be up to regulatory agencies such as Health Canada to determine what other studies are required before clinical testing can begin.  In this regard it is very encouraging that the FDA recently approved the clinical testing in patients with type 1 diabetes of pancreatic precursor cells produced by ViaCyte.

Question:  Do you see a day in the next 10 years when this kind of treatment replaces daily insulin injections?

Answer: I am quite enthusiastic for the potential of a stem cell based therapy for diabetes.  The clinical path has been proven with islet transplantation — only a few teaspoons of insulin producing cells (cadaveric islets) are infused into the patients and with this, effective glucose control can be re-established.  It is only a matter of time before stem cells provide the needed source of cells to replace insulin injections, and I predict this will be within 10 years.

Question:  You’re working with BetaLogics Venture of Janssen Research & Development, LLC on the protocol. Do you have plans to commercialize the protocol as a treatment?

Answer: The work by Dr. Alireza Rezania and colleagues at BetaLogics Venture was instrumental in this research; these are the scientists who significantly advanced the differentiation protocol.   The involvement of Janssen greatly increases the chances that this stem cell strategy will develop into a product, with the hopes it will not only treat diabetes, but ultimately cure it.

(Note: This research is supported in part by funding from JDRF, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Regenerative Medicine and Nanomedicine Initiative, and the Stem Cell Network.)

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22
Sep 2014
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Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld , right, interviews Tina Ceroni and Dr. Harry Atkins

Stem cell patient and doctor tell their story

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“It’s hard to put into words … to describe what it’s like to get your life given back to you in ways you never thought possible.”

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the story of Tina Ceroni, the Burlington, Ontario woman whose devastating Stiff Person Syndrome disease was successfully treated with a stem cell transplant by Dr.

“It’s hard to put into words … to describe what it’s like to get your life given back to you in ways you never thought possible.”

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the story of Tina Ceroni, the Burlington, Ontario woman whose devastating Stiff Person Syndrome disease was successfully treated with a stem cell transplant by Dr. Harry Atkins at the Ottawa Hospital. Over the weekend CBC Ottawa brought the patient and the doctor together to talk about how the procedure gave her her life back after the rare autoimmune disorder had taken most of it away. You can see it here.

 

 

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03
Sep 2014
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P.K Subban took the Ice Buck Challenge

The Ice Bucket phenomenon and the excitement about stem cells

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P.K Subban has done it. So has Mike Holmes. And Toronto’s infamous Mayor Rob Ford.  Have you poured a bucket of ice water over your head to raise awareness — and funds — about ALS?…

P.K Subban has done it. So has Mike Holmes. And Toronto’s infamous Mayor Rob Ford.  Have you poured a bucket of ice water over your head to raise awareness — and funds — about ALS? (more…)

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05
May 2014
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Marc Turner Screen Capture

There will be (stem cell derived) blood

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Over the next three years, a team of Scottish scientists hope to prove that the blood they are making from stem cells is as good as — or even better — for transfusions than the ordinary donated kind.…

Over the next three years, a team of Scottish scientists hope to prove that the blood they are making from stem cells is as good as — or even better — for transfusions than the ordinary donated kind.

Although it has hardly raised an eyebrow in Canada, this potentially game-changing research has been big news in the United Kingdom where it was featured in the Daily Mail, a splashy tabloid with a circulation of 1.75 million. As the Mail suggested, this “could lead to a future where artificial blood is used more regularly than donated blood.”

Prof. Marc Turner, pictured left, leads a lab at the University of Edinburgh that has successfully produced red blood cells from human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (stem cells drawn from the skin that are reprogrammed to an embryonic-like state).  The researchers have made a careful study of the cells’ properties in test tubes and Petri dishes. “But the only real way of finding out if these are the Real McCoys and that they fit in the circulation the same way as normal red blood cells is do a proof of principle, ‘first in man’ study,”  says Prof. Turner, the Medical Director at Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service  and leader of the  £5 million ($9.27 million) project.

How could this stem cell derived blood be better? The human body produces millions red blood cells every minute of every hour. These cells, which transport oxygen around the body via their hemoglobin content, last about 120 days.  So when you donate blood at your local clinic, some of it might be 119 days old and ready for the scrap heap. Stem cell generated red blood cells, however, are all brand, spanking new.  Ideally, then, they should all put in a good four months’ work in the bloodstream after transfusion. That’s what Prof. Turner’s team wants to find out.

The Scots aren’t the first to do this. In a 2011 paper published in BloodFrance’s Dr. Luc Douay showed that red blood cells derived from adult stem cells performed “favorably” compared to “native red blood cells” when transfused into a test subject.  As well, labs around the world have been successful in producing red blood cells using embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells.

The problem has been “scaling up” the number of red blood cells required to do clinical trials. Dr. Douay used hematopoietic (blood-based) stem cells for his breakthrough.  “But researchers don’t have culture conditions that can support a very large expansion of hematopoietic stem cells,” says Dr. Julie Audet, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto.  “So this step of amplification of the starting material is causing problems.”

Another challenge, says Dr. Audet, is that red blood cells derived from embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cells lack maturity: the hemoglobin they carry is more like the stuff of newborns than that of adults.

While Prof. Turner acknowledges the fetal quality hemoglobin isn’t ideal, it is functional. “It will do for the time being. We have some ideas about how we might try and nudge the cells to an added degree of maturity.  It’s important, but it’s not a showstopper at this stage.”

As for the “scaling up” challenge, he thinks they have that figured out — at least for their current very small (three-patient) study. “It will only require relatively modest volumes of red cells. After that, on the big assumption that that we will be successful, we will be looking to go into proper clinical study. That’s when we will start to confront the issues of scale up.”

So what does it all mean? Are blood donor clinics destined to go become a relic of a bygone era?

Not any time soon, says Prof. Turner.

“This is years or decades away. We don’t want people to stop donating blood just now, please.”

The more immediate application, he says, could be using the process for people with thalassemia, a genetic disorder that causes destruction of red blood cells.

“These patients are dependent on long-term red blood cell transfusions. They survive well now compared to decades ago, but they do have a problem with iron loading. One of the potential advantages of having a younger cohort of red cells is they should last longer in circulation. That would offer a clinical advantage.”

So the potential short-term impact is important, but limited. Longer term, however, this could change everything.

“In the very long term, it may be possible to generate red cells for general use,” says Prof. Turner.

“That obviously would have an advantage in those countries that don’t have a secure supply of blood. Developed countries like Canada and the UK have sufficient sources of cells and pretty secure and safe blood supplies. But we shouldn’t take that for granted.  Certainly, we’re all familiar with problems with (transfusion transmitted) infections in the past, like Hepatitis C. And we’ve had problems with Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease here in the UK.”

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24
Apr 2014
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JulieLessard IRIC 2-cropped

Gene that regulates leukemia will take time (and patience) to tame

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While patience is a virtue for most of us, it is an absolute prerequisite for stem cell researchers.

The recent news that scientists have identified a gene called BRG1 that appears to regulate leukemia stem cells marks an important advance in understanding the dread disease.…

While patience is a virtue for most of us, it is an absolute prerequisite for stem cell researchers.

The recent news that scientists have identified a gene called BRG1 that appears to regulate leukemia stem cells marks an important advance in understanding the dread disease. It also signifies years of work by the team led by Dr. Julie Lessard at the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) of Université de Montréal.

“About four years,” says Dr. Lessard, pictured left, one of Canada’s leading researchers in the field of hematopoiesis — the art of blood production.

Using mice as subjects, Dr. Lessard’s team found that removing the BRG1 gene left the leukemia stem cells and progenitors unable to survive, divide and make new tumors, permanently shutting down the cancer.  But while they are delighted with their findings, the researchers know they are in for many more years of work.

“We need to identify BRG1 inhibitors that will work in vitro (in test tubes and Petri dishes) and in vivo (with animals and humans),” says Dr. Lessard. “We believe that it is the ATPase activity that is the essential function we need to target for potential drug development, so that’s what we’re going after.”

In essence, that means finding small molecules that can stifle BRG1, the research equivalent to finding a needle in a haystack. Fortunately, IRIC is equipped with computer-driven high throughput screening to search their library of about 120,000 molecules for one that will do the trick. “We are hoping we can get there in the coming years,” she says.

Dr. Lessard’s findings further strengthen Canadian leadership in the field of stem cells and hematopoiesis. It was two Ontario Cancer Institute researchers — Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch — who first proved the existence of stem cells in the early 1960s while trying to find new treatments for leukemia. Dr. John Dick, of Toronto’s University Health Network, first identified tumour-initiating cancer stem cells in 1997.

What’s particularly intriguing about Dr. Lessard’s findings is that shutting down the BRG1 gene only appears to affect leukemia-generating stem cells. “Its function in the normal stem cell is rather modest. So you can take the gene out of leukemic cells and it will shut them down without shutting down the other stem cells you need to continue growth.”

While Dr. Lessard is excited about this project, she’s realistic about the amount of time and work involved.

“First of all, we have to have a very solid preclinical product to test in animals.  We think that a therapeutic window must exist. And this is what makes this study more interesting. It will be very exciting to explore in the coming years.”

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