Stem Cells

11
Apr 2014
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CIRM logo

Stem cell research in California: ten years later

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Ten years ago, Californians voted in favor of Proposition 71 to support stem cell research, committing $3 billion to stem cell research and creating the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state agency that allocates the funds.…

Ten years ago, Californians voted in favor of Proposition 71 to support stem cell research, committing $3 billion to stem cell research and creating the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state agency that allocates the funds.

In 2011, CIRM announced it would fund its first human clinical trial using a stem-cell derived therapy, committing $25 million to a company called Geron to test the use of neural stem cells in patients in spinal cord injury. It was an inauspicious start: Geron shut down the trial after about six months and gave back the money, citing a desire to focus on experimental cancer therapies that were further along in the development pipeline.

However, CIRM has carried on. And according to the Sacramento Business Journal nine of the first 14 stem cell trials the agency has funded have either started enrolling patients or will begin doing so by the end of the year. Two trials are already underway: one testing therapies for HIV/AIDS, the other for congestive heart failure. Other trials set to begin include therapies for leukemia and solid tumor cancers, degenerative eye disease, Type I diabetes, sickle cell disease and a serious blood disorder.

“It’s the largest funding in the world for this particular science and it turned California into the epicenter for stem cell research,” said Dr. Jonathan Thomas, board chairman for the CIRM.

The process of transition from studies in mice to human trials is daunting and complex. (Read our recent blog entry on the state of stem cell trials about the state of stem cell clinical trials around the world.) But bringing more potential therapies to clinical trials is absolutely crucial.

“The world is full of cured mice,” says Dr. Jonathan Thomas. “You never know what you get in humans but this is how you find out. You have to get to clinical trials.”

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02
Apr 2014
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taylor and slomovic1

Stem cell transplant MD named one of Toronto’s best

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Toronto Life has profiled 30 of “Toronto’s Best Doctors,” with about 1,000 of the city’s physicians participating in a poll to nominate the best MDs based on skills, reputation and their contributions to their field of specialty.…

Toronto Life has profiled 30 of “Toronto’s Best Doctors,” with about 1,000 of the city’s physicians participating in a poll to nominate the best MDs based on skills, reputation and their contributions to their field of specialty.

Dr. Allan R. Slomovic, the Research Director of the Cornea/External Disease Service at the Toronto Western Hospital, University Health Network (UHN), has been profiled as a top eye surgeon.

We recently featured the story of Taylor Binns, who suffered from limbal stem cell deficiency, a rare condition that occurs when the stem cells in a narrow band of tissue around the cornea break down, causing blindness and extreme pain. Dr. Slomovic performed first stem cell transplant in Canada to treat the condition and Taylor is now free of pain and back to his normal life.

Dr. Slomovic has done about eight limbal stem cell transplants in the last two years and is hoping to make UHN the leader in the field of ocular regenerative program.

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21
Feb 2014
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The world is no longer a dark and painful place

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Taylor Binns’ transformation from blindness to “as close to 20/20 as can be with corrective lenses” may seem like story book stuff, but more than three years after his limbal stem cell transplant, he continues to write new chapters.…

Taylor Binns’ transformation from blindness to “as close to 20/20 as can be with corrective lenses” may seem like story book stuff, but more than three years after his limbal stem cell transplant, he continues to write new chapters.

“I am working for a consulting firm, but I am also in a process of getting into medical school,” says the 26-year-old. “The hope is that within a year-and-a-half I will be in medical school somewhere.”

He is also back on the road, driving a car. Back playing his beloved sport of rugby.  And free of the piercing pain that staggered him for almost four years while he was working on his commerce degree at Queen’s University in Kingston.

“It was excruciating,” says Taylor, who grew up in Orillia, Ontario. “Imagine the worst time you ever had with something in your eye. And there was a constant burning sensation.”

Limbal stem cell deficiency (LSCD), a rare condition that occurs when the stem cells in a narrow band of tissue around the cornea break down, produced Taylor’s blindness and eye agony.  Common causes are chemical damage or burns, but sometimes the condition is congenital.  Contact lenses, which Taylor wore, have also been implicated.

As the video above dramatically shows, it was limbal stem cells harvested from his sister Tori that returned Taylor’s sight and banished his pain. Beyond undergoing the procedure, donating her cells posed no problems for Tori. “She’s doing great,” says Taylor. “She’s living in Vancouver where she does hair and makeup for movies and TV shows.”

Taylor, whose LSCD struck during a summer volunteer work stint in Haiti, can’t say enough about Dr Allan R. Slomovic, who performed his four operations at Toronto Western Hospital, beginning in November of 2010. “I was sent to see many doctors around North America and there is no one I would recommend more than him. Professionally and personally, he’s the best.”

Dr. Slomovic, who has done about eight limbal stem cell transplants in the last two years,   says the success rate has been good.  “But not everyone’s like Taylor. He was very fortunate: when we removed the scar tissue from his cornea, the underlying cornea itself was healthy.”

Dr. Slomovic credits Dr. Edward Cole and the staff at University Health Network’s Renal Transplant Program for making limbal stem cell transplants such a success. Their experience in arranging living and deceased donor kidney transplants gives them the expertise to ensure the most compatible donor is found and that the recipient is put on the most appropriate immunosuppression regime after receiving the donated cells.  “It’s a team effort,” says Dr. Slomovic.

As for Taylor, the world is no longer a dark and painful place.  His checkups are down to one every six months. Other than “a little bit” of immunosuppressant drugs, he is no longer on medication.

(For more on stem cells and eye diseases click here.)

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11
Feb 2014
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Ms-Bobbe-Wood

Why health research is a solid investment

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Heart disease and stroke are two of the leading causes of death, hospitalization and prescription drug use in Canada.

While biomedical research has helped Canadians live healthier and longer lives, “it still has a long way to go,” according to Bobbe Wood, President of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.…

Heart disease and stroke are two of the leading causes of death, hospitalization and prescription drug use in Canada.

While biomedical research has helped Canadians live healthier and longer lives, “it still has a long way to go,” according to Bobbe Wood, President of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. (Click here to read our NewsDesk article on a clinical trial using enhanced blood stem cells to repair heart damage.)

In the current edition of Inside Policy, Ms. Wood, a participant at the Health Charities Forum for a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy, highlights the importance and benefits of investing in cardiovascular research.

“Biomedical research cannot be turned on and off on a whim … it requires an infrastructure built over many years,” she writes. “A long-term investment in cardiovascular research is fundamental to ensure better and longer lives for Canadians, but is also one of the best economic investments we can make as a society,” adds Ms. Wood.

Investments in cardiovascular research generate a return of 21% in terms of benefits to the Canadian economy, an amount that is “enough to warm the heart of even the coldest banker or investor,” says Ms. Wood in the article.

She says that biomedical research not only makes us healthier, but it also improves our standard of living by creating jobs and generating significant payback.

With a strong education system and vibrant research and clinical communities, “Canada has all the ingredients to make biomedical research an important economic sector, while at the same time improving our health, our lives and overall economy,” says Ms. Wood.

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05
Feb 2014
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The McConnells for Feb 5 blog post-2

Rob and Teneille McConnell on their wedding day in June

Stem cells free Saskatchewan man from Crohn’s

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Rob McConnell’s Crohn’s disease struck about 13 years ago, when he was 20. The Elrose, Saskatchewan farm manager believes the stress of his father’s death had a lot to do with the onset of the debilitating disease — and how hard it hit him.…

Rob McConnell’s Crohn’s disease struck about 13 years ago, when he was 20. The Elrose, Saskatchewan farm manager believes the stress of his father’s death had a lot to do with the onset of the debilitating disease — and how hard it hit him.

The six-footer’s weight dropped to 95 pounds, the result of his decreased appetite, abdominal pain and chronic diarrhea that sent him to the toilet at least a dozen times a day.  He underwent more operations than he can remember to remove diseased pieces of his intestines, and when he wasn’t in hospital he “was on enough steroids and pain killers to kill a small horse.”

Crohn’s disease and a related condition called ulcerative colitis occur when the body’s immune system reacts to genetic and/or environmental triggers by attacking the digestive tract. The two conditions are commonly referred to as Inflammatory Bowel Disease or IBD. Canada has one of the highest incidences of IBD in the world, with one in about 150 — about 230,000 Canadians — affected.  (For a lively and informative overview of IBD, check out this video at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada site.)

Rob tried every drug and treatment available to combat his Crohn’s.  They would work for a while. Some, especially the steroids, came with severe side-effects (moon-shaped face, hair loss, sore joints and brittle bones).  But the Crohn’s kept coming back.

“I was going downhill quickly,” says Rob. “I was at the hospital all the time and my girlfriend Teneille would go home and go online looking for other options, especially information about stem cell transplants. She found a blog by Billy Tytaneck.”

In 2008, Billy Tytaneck was able to avoid radical surgery to remove much of his bowel when Dr. Harry Atkins of the Ottawa General Hospital performed a stem cell bone marrow transplant to rebuild his immune system. Dr. Atkins has been featured in this space for his success in treating patients with Multiple Sclerosis, as well as Stiff Person Syndrome and neuromyelitis optica.

Teneille wrote to Dr. Atkins, who asked her to send along Rob’s medical records. “About a week later he responded and told me: ‘You know what? I think you might be a candidate.’  It was late February 2012 when I went to Ottawa for my consultation and right away I had a great connection with Dr. Atkins, who sat me down and went through the whole procedure.”

Three months later, Rob was back in Ottawa for his “Autologous Peripheral Stem Cell Transplant” using stem cells that were extracted from his blood, then purified and fortified. After undergoing extreme chemotherapy to annihilate his diseased immune system, Rob was given back the robust stem cells to rebuild a new immune system.

He sailed through the treatment that others have found excruciating. “I took the chemo relatively well. There was some nausea and I had other things that bothered me, but I didn’t get the whole super illness.”

After staying in Ottawa for follow-up treatments and infection monitoring, Rob went back to Saskatchewan in the fall where, a year-and-a-half later, the Crohn’s is in remission and he feels fine. No more frequent trips to the bathroom. No more cramps. No more weight loss: he’s up to 161 pounds now, his heaviest ever. He no longer takes any medication.

While it is still too early to say whether Rob’s Crohn’s is cured — the condition is known to wax and wane — so far so good.  “I eat very well,” says Rob. “Things that used to bother me don’t bother me anymore. There have been no attacks. I used to have a pain twice an hour or more. It has been a long while since I had one.”

And his quality of life has vastly improved.  “It is just amazing. I started another business. Teneille and I got married at the end of June. I’m doing so much more and feeling so much better.  I really don’t think I would be on this side of the grass if I didn’t get that treatment.”

(Editor’s Note: CNN reports on Dr. Atkins and his work with Stiff Person Syndrome patients.)

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13
Jan 2014
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Save cord blood, save lives

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In September, when the first public umbilical cord blood bank opened in Ottawa, Canada joined — albeit last — the rest of the G8 countries to have a national collection program.…

In September, when the first public umbilical cord blood bank opened in Ottawa, Canada joined — albeit last — the rest of the G8 countries to have a national collection program.

Things have been rolling along since then.

On Friday, the BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre in Vancouver was named the fourth collection site across the country, with Brampton and Edmonton designated in October and November respectively. “We are honoured to have BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre as one of our collection hospitals,” Dr. Graham Sher, Chief Executive Officer at Canadian Blood Services, which manages the public bank, said in a media release. CBS expects to collect about 18,000 cord blood units over the next six years.

Healthy women 18 years older who are delivering at the Vancouver hospital can soon voluntarily donate their baby’s cord blood during a testing period that will last until mid-year. The collection site officially launches later this year.

The donated cord blood will be available to patients unable to find donors among their families or donor lists. Cord blood cells are a rich source of stem cells, which can be transplanted to treat diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma.

With Vancouver being such an ethnically diverse city, the newly created collection facility will increase the possibility of patients from different ethnical backgrounds — including Asians, Aboriginal People and multi-ethnic people — finding a match.

“Finding a bone marrow match was more of a problem for me because I’m black” Hector Walker, who received his bone marrow transplant from cord blood cells in 2010, told the Vancouver Sun. “Even my brother wasn’t a match.

“Life is so unpredictable. People should understand they can save someone’s life by doing this,” he said.

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08
Jan 2014
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Actor Michael York’s ‘other’ birthday

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It all started when Michael York began developing dark circles under his eyes. The British movie star, famous for his roles in Cabaret and Austin Powers, first attributed the changes to a lack of sleep or age.…

It all started when Michael York began developing dark circles under his eyes. The British movie star, famous for his roles in Cabaret and Austin Powers, first attributed the changes to a lack of sleep or age.

In a recent talk at the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the actor explained how he eventually realized something was seriously wrong: his skin was getting worse and he was feeling ill.

It took years to get a correct diagnosis: amyloidosis — the term for a group of rare diseases in which one or more organs accumulate deposits of abnormal proteins known as amyloid. He was also diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells.

In July 2012, he underwent a successful stem cell transplant to treat his diseases.  “July the 10th is my other birthday,” the much-honoured actor says of the day he received the cells.  Mr. York has been able to return to performing and is currently working on a documentary film.

He tells his story in this video, calling regenerative medicine “the future” and “the most exciting thing on the horizon.”

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07
Aug 2013
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Snipped Slamon and Mak

Not an easy job, but the demand is there

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Welcome to the first instalment of the Stem Cell NewsDesk, the Foundation’s attempt to help Canadians better understand where a “breakthrough” fits on the research lab-to-clinic continuum.…

Welcome to the first instalment of the Stem Cell NewsDesk, the Foundation’s attempt to help Canadians better understand where a “breakthrough” fits on the research lab-to-clinic continuum.

Essentially, the aim of NewsDesk is to try to answer one question: how does [insert news-making development/discovery/breakthrough here] contribute to finding a treatment or a cure for a currently untreatable or incurable disease?  The idea is not to hype stem cell science but to provide realistic reports on developments as they occur.

It won’t be easy. Stem cell science is complicated and it can be hard to decipher whether a discovery represents a monumental leap forward or is just an incremental improvement in understanding how stem cells function. Sometimes it is obvious, as with Dr. Shinya Yamanaka’s 2006 Nobel-winning discovery of how to make embryonic-like stem cells from almost any cell in the body – cells we now call induced pluripotent stem cells. Sometimes it’s not. Remember that the first demonstration of the unique properties of stem cells 50 years ago flew in under the radar.

In email correspondence, Dr. Connie Eaves, a Vancouver-based researcher whose team was the first to isolate breast stem cells, shared her thoughts on why this is such a challenge:

  • Every ‘new’ piece of information about how cells work and how their behaviour can be predictably manipulated is potentially a breakthrough – but it may take years to understand whether/when/where/or for what that will be true. So, making a fast judgment is rarely possible.
  • Current efforts use unknowns (new molecules with an experimental rationale) to treat unknowns (human tumours we don’t understand).
  • Clinically, an improvement of long-term survival from 5% to 15% would be considered a big advance. But if you were an affected patient, you might not see it that way, as overall your survival chances would still be pretty bad.
  •  What is useful clinically requires a controlled trial and this usually takes a long time (10 years) and the result may appear sort of boring by the time the answers are all in.

Case in point: the ‘sharpshooter’ story

Dr. Eaves is part of the 100-person team led by Princess Margaret Cancer Centre’s Dr. Tak Mak and Dr. Denis Slamon, (pictured at right) of the University of California, Los Angeles that made headlines in mid-June by announcing they had developed a new kind of “sharpshooter” anti-cancer drug.  Given the excellent track record of the two scientists – Dr. Mak revolutionized how scientists think about the human immune system by cloning the T-Cell receptor and Dr. Slamon developed the breast cancer drug Herceptin – it’s not surprising the announcement garnered major media attention.

As the Toronto Star explained, the new drug, which has been tested on mice for ovarian, breast, pancreas, lung and colon cancer is called a sharpshooter because it goes after a specific enzyme to shut down cancer.  Unlike chemotherapy, which can kill healthy, quick-replicating cells, the drug, called CFI-400945, takes aim only at the cancer cells.

On CTV’s Canada AM, host Bev Thompson described it as “being hailed as a major breakthrough in cancer research” and said while “we’ve talked about breakthroughs before … this seems like a cut above.”

In the Globe and Mail, however, Canada’s leading health writer André Picard, pointed out that CFI-400945, has “not been tested on a single person” and that “even in a best-case scenario” a new cancer drug “is at least a decade away.”

As excited as they were, the Princess Margaret researchers also urged patience. On that Canada AM segment, Dr. Philippe Bedard explained that the three-phase clinical trial process is a marathon, not a sprint, stressing that there is a long road ahead and it “can take many years.”

So where does that leave cancer patients?

Officials at Princess Margaret say there has been lots of interest from people who want the new drug. That will take some time: Health Canada approved CFI-400945 for use in human trials in mid-July. Next, it goes before the University Health Network’s Research Ethics Board for approval. A trial involving a small number of patients to see if CFI-400945 is safe – likely will begin in November.

So why did Princess Margaret bang the drum so loudly at such an early stage? The sharpshooter announcement actually came from The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation to make donors aware of the potential advances that are critically dependent on the funding support that their donations provide. Makes sense:  Canadians support medical research through their charitable donations as well as through their taxes and want to know how their investments are doing.

No quick fixes

But the reaction shows that there is a real and growing need for a resource to help people understand how a treatment may have an impact on them. As stem cell research moves closer to providing new treatments, people will want to know more.

NewsDesk hopes to help in this. Again, not an easy task. And there will be lots of cautions and caveats attached to our discussions of breakthroughs.  Because the reality is: there are no quick fixes or magic bullets. But progress is being made – almost every day.

So let’s go back to Dr. Eaves, who is a member of the Foundation’s Science Leadership Council, and her thoughts on the sharpshooter announcement:

“The Tak Mak result looks very exciting in the experimental models studied to date. But there is not much history yet to know how these will correlate with patient outcomes. I can’t say much more than that and don’t think anyone can at this early stage.”

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20
Jun 2013
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Help Us Help Stem Cells Help You

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When we set about revamping our website here at the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, we realized that a subject as exciting and loaded with potential as stem cells ought to have a website that captured that sense of excitement and explored that potential.…

When we set about revamping our website here at the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, we realized that a subject as exciting and loaded with potential as stem cells ought to have a website that captured that sense of excitement and explored that potential.

Not that our previous version didn’t. Our original site was innovative enough to win a Webby Award – the online equivalent to an Oscar – in 2010. But it was created in our early days and, just like the field of stem cell science, we have moved ahead, taking on bold new challenges our old site could no longer encompass.

The first step was to simplify the message. As the national voice and champion, our essential role is to unite scientists, business and community leaders behind accelerating the process of turning stem cell research into clinical applications to treat or cure currently untreatable and incurable diseases. We were able to distil that role into the seven words trumpeted on our home page: Help Us Help Stem Cells Help You.

Everything found on the new site fans out from there. The Toward Treatments section, for example, is there to explain – in language everyone can understand – how far along stem cell research is in addressing diseases that have perplexed medical science for centuries. The idea is to provide a resource where patients, their families and friends can go to get the straight goods on whether there is a stem cell treatment available or where a potential  treatment is in the research-to-clinic pipeline.

‘Watch this space’

Currently, we have 14 diseases/conditions covered, ranging from ALS to Wound Healing. We hope to have a total of 18 prepared by year’s end. Which speaks to the evolving nature of our website. It is a work in progress. For example, our Stem Cell NewsDesk is in “watch this space” mode.  The idea with the NewsDesk is to provide regular updates on progress in stem cell research, assess the importance of advances that the mainstream media are highlighting and shine a light on work that may be going unnoticed.  It will be the go-to place for fair and balanced reportage of the progress that stem cell science is making. We plan to test run it over the summer and have it operational for the fall.

As for the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy, it represents the Foundation’s number one priority for the next two years.  Canada needs a properly funded, publicly supported research and development strategy to stay at the forefront of this exciting field of medical research and to move further, faster toward the types of treatments everyone is hoping for.  We are in the formative stages of creating the Strategy, but Canadians will be hearing a lot more about it over the coming months.

New features, old favourites

One of the new features on the site is our powerful Legacy Video that outlines Canada’s role in founding and developing stem cell science. Watching it, you can’t help but be impressed by Canada’s remarkable contributions to founding and developing this exciting and important field of research, and to fully appreciate the notion that, ‘If hockey is Canada’s game, its science is stem cells.”

For those who enjoyed the old website, do not despair. We have maintained its most-visited and best-loved elements.  The Rock Star Scientists Video that features several of Canada’s leading scientists talking about their work continues to inspire. We encourage you to visit the Stem Cell Charter page and, if you haven’t already, add your name to the thousands of Canadians who believe in the therapeutic potential of stem cells and who have committed to becoming more informed about and engaged in advancing stem cell science.

We built this site to evolve and move forward as the science we champion evolves and moves forward. To explore the potential. Now, that’s exciting.

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04
Jun 2013
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Moving forward, in a big way

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The Canadian Stem Cell Foundation is on the move – in more ways than one.

After two years of operating out of the Stem Cell Network offices at the Ottawa Hospital, the Foundation is now in new quarters at 6 Gurdwara Road in South Ottawa and a satellite office on Spadina Road in the heart of Toronto.…

The Canadian Stem Cell Foundation is on the move – in more ways than one.

After two years of operating out of the Stem Cell Network offices at the Ottawa Hospital, the Foundation is now in new quarters at 6 Gurdwara Road in South Ottawa and a satellite office on Spadina Road in the heart of Toronto.

New project

The new space is necessary to accommodate exciting new projects the Foundation is rolling out First up is a completely redesigned website with a bold theme: Help Us, Help Stem Cells Help You. Its centrepiece attraction is Toward Treatments – patient-focused summaries of what stem cell researchers are doing in the battle against 14 currently incurable diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.  Prepared in partnership with the Stem Cell Network, each summary is as authoritative as it is accessible, written in reader-friendly language that makes complicated science easily comprehensible.

Stem Cell NewsDesk

We expect to have the site up and running in the summer and will be adding to it as we build for a major fall launch when another much-needed feature will be ready to go: Stem Cell NewsDesk will provide timely and realistic assessments of advances in research that the mainstream media are highlighting, and shine a light on important work that may be going overlooked.

The idea is to give Canadians a clear understanding of the difference between an incremental advance and a major accomplishment. We anticipate the NewDesk will be the go-to place for fair and balanced reportage of the progress stem cells science is making. Watch for it this fall.

A Canadian Strategy

But that is just a starting point.

The Foundation’s major undertaking over the next two years will be the crafting and implementation of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy to guide the progress of research and development over the next 15 to 20 years. Wheels are already turning. The Foundation’s formidable Science Leadership Council is the framework for the strategy.  We are now recruiting some of the world’s leading thinkers in stem cell science and its application to join a blue-ribbon panel of international experts to provide the global context required to shape the strategy.  And we have begun consulting with Canada’s entrepreneurial and philanthropic leaders to get their input— and commitment – to help move the science safely and quickly forward.

The potential of stem cell science to treat diseases and ease suffering is immense.  We believe stem cell science is now at a tipping point – a time when potential solutions are on the verge of becoming real ones. The Canadian Stem Cell Foundation is moving forward to help make that happen.

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