Some experts hailed the report as a testament to the power of stem cell therapy while others questioned the veracity of the claim and called for more than just anecdotal evidence.

No consensus has been reached but one fact is not in dispute: Stem cell research is making headlines again and Canadians want to know more about it. What they’re discovering is that it’s a dynamic field that holds a lot of promise.
The Ontario government recently financed the establishment of the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine (OIRM), which is dedicated to translating the findings of stem cell research into curative therapies for degenerative diseases. The vision is to make cutting-edge treatment available to people who need it, including those who suffer from neurological conditions.

New institute seen as the ‘glue’ in regenerative medicine

Two organizations, the Ontario Stem Cell Initiative (OSCI) and the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), oversaw the creation of the new institute. Dr. Janet Rossant, the interim director, sees OIRM as the glue that brings researchers, clinicians and bioengineers together with an organization (CCRM) capable of turning their regenerative medicine discoveries into economic opportunities.

"It’s clear that scientists, clinicians and commercial entities can work together to see regenerative medicine have both health and economic benefits."

Several promising initiatives are already underway, she says, including one at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Researchers there have found that metformin, a drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes, can stimulate stem cells to produce new brain cells. In studies on mice and on human brain cell cultures in a lab, brain cells have multiplied.

Researchers hope that, in time, stems cells can be used to treat brain injuries and even diseases like Alzheimer’s. The hospital’s research ethics board is now reviewing the findings and will determine whether clinical trials on humans can proceed.

“Developments in neuro repair and other areas will improve the lives of people battling disease in incremental steps,” says Rossant. “We won’t see the ‘big wins,’ or cures, right away but they are not far off — maybe just five years in some cases.”

Moving treatment from lab to bedside

When CCRM sees commercial potential in a scientific breakthrough, it takes steps to get the discovery from the lab to the bedside. To attract the investment needed to make that happen, CCRM has established relationships across the biotech sector. CEO Michael May says his organization wants to create new companies on the promise of science.

Dr. May is enthusiastic about one initiative in particular — an ultramodern GMP (good manufacturing practice) cell-manufacturing facility being built in Toronto with CCRM’s partners and funding from the provincial government. It will encourage the companies that CCRM is creating or attracting to stay in Ontario.

One of the first projects anticipated for the 1,850 square metre facility will be in the field of immunotherapy, in which researchers train a cancer patient’s white blood cells to attack cancerous cells.

“When people see what is going on in this area, they will be stunned,” May says. “It’s clear that scientists, clinicians and commercial entities can work together to see regenerative medicine have both health and economic benefits.”