Without a doubt, regenerative medicine is one of the most promising areas of medicine today. It’s poised to grow 25 to 30 percent in the coming years and Canada is set to become a world leader in the field by developing technology to tackle a number of diseases, like cancer, by using living therapies.

Michael May, President and CEO of Toronto-based CCRM, offers a more detailed description: “Regenerative medicine is the use of cells, molecules, and biomaterials to produce products that can regenerate, replace or repair damaged cells, tissues, and organs. At the foundation of it are stem cells. The real promise of regenerative medicine is the ability to provide cures for degenerative diseases, not just treat their symptoms.”

It’s a field poised to make a huge impact on the lives of patients and the future of medicine. “Regenerative medicine represents a new pillar in medicine, along with drugs, devices, and biologics,” says Dr. May. “Now, cells are becoming a fourth pillar, backed by emerging clinical evidence demonstrating their efficacy.”

In the past, breakthroughs in stem cell technology often didn’t move out of Canadian laboratories and into development, or foreign investors claimed them to launch elsewhere. In either case, the lack of a clear path to next steps represented lost opportunities for Canada. “We build all this wonderful technology and create great opportunities, and then we send them to somewhere else in the world,” says Dr. May.

Those issues emphasized the need for a unique place like CCRM. Since it began six years ago, it has been helping to advance regenerative medicine at a faster pace, making it a viable, cost-effective business through CCRM’s focus on manufacturing, industry partnerships, and investment. Research plays a starring role, too. CCRM has its own 40,000-square-foot facility in downtown Toronto where cell and gene therapy research and development occurs.

Originally funded by the Networks of Centres of Excellence, CCRM emerged out of a growing demand from academics, industry, and research institutions. “It was time to think about translating these technologies into clinical trials and getting them out to the market,” says Dr. May. “Stakeholders coming together in a unified way gives us the ability to move projects forward.”

One of the key industry partners involved is GE Healthcare. The company was drawn to partner with CCRM to develop the Centre for Advanced Therapeutic Cell Technologies (CATCT), known internally as BridGE@CCRM, because of its wealth of technology and research talent, according to Phil Vanek, General Manager of Cell Therapy Growth Strategy, GE Healthcare.

“At BridGE@CCRM we’ve embedded GE engineers and other scientists in the same laboratory space that CCRM occupies,” says Dr. Vanek. “We have a partnership where we can work on projects collectively to solve unique problems. GE brings some of the engineering skill set and engineering know-how, while CCRM brings biological competence that is hard to find. It is a good marriage.” CATCT is equally funded by FedDev Ontario, a federal funding program.

One of CCRM’s top priorities is serving as an incubator for new companies, helping them get their technology out into the world. Newly hatched businesses include BlueRock Therapeutics (a company using pluripotent stem cells derived from blood and skin) and ExCellThera, specializing in cell extraction from umbilical cord blood.

Dr. Peter Zandstra is co-scientific founder and chief technology officer at ExCellThera, a company that evolved from CCRM and IRICoR, a sister organization at the University of Montreal. His goal for ExCellThera is to generate enough cells to treat patients with leukemia. “There are banks of cord blood cells across the world, but typically there are either not enough cells to treat an adult patient or there is a very low probability that you’ll find a sample of cells that is the right match,” says Zandstra.

ExCellThera is working to make more cells available to doctors, using technology that enables the most suitable types of cells needed by patients for treatment to be grown. Though the company is less than two years old, it has already used these innovations to treat 13 patients and the results have been promising. “It’s exciting because this technology is being developed in Canada,” says Dr. Zandstra. “We think it will have a significant impact on patients with leukemia. Over the longer term, we hope there will be an opportunity to use blood stem cells for a number of other therapies as well.”

These developments mark a pivotal time in regenerative medicine with Canada at the forefront, leading the way.