Most Canadians are unaware that two of their own – a lanky physics whiz from Alberta and a rumpled Shakespeare-quoting MD from Toronto – made a discovery 50 years ago that transformed the understanding of human biology and opened new doors to the treatment of cancer and other diseases.
Toiling away in labs atop Toronto’s old Princess Margaret Hospital, James Edgar Till and Ernest Armstrong (Bun) McCulloch proved that a single rare cell could produce the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets needed to make blood, while simultaneously reproducing itself. Dr. Till and Dr. McCulloch originally called the cell a “colony-forming unit.” Today, it’s better known as a stem cell.
A great new book, Dreams and Due Diligence, by Joe Sornberger, tells the story. Still, that so few of us know – let alone celebrate – the fact that the stem cell is a Canadian discovery is baffling. Canada founded the entire field of stem-cell science. We have done much of the heavy lifting for decades: discovering neural stem cells, skin stem cells and cancer stem cells. If hockey is Canada’s game, stem-cell science is Canada’s science. Not knowing about Dr. Till and Dr. McCulloch is not knowing about Maurice Richard and Wayne Gretzky.
The way it happened didn’t help. Their original paper was published in an obscure journal, Radiation Research, in 1961. Public interest went viral only after American James Thomson isolated human embryonic stem cells in 1998, which simultaneously raised hopes that stem cells could be used to repair any damaged cell in the body and ethical concerns that doing so would encourage the destruction of human embryos.
In 2002, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research developed guidelines for all stem-cell research carried out in Canada with its funds. These guidelines have become the gold standard for other countries, including the United States.
What’s even more remarkable is that Canada does such groundbreaking research on a dime. The “all in” investment in stem-cell research in Canada – public, private and charitable funding – is about $75-million. This support is provided by Canadians through taxes, donations to health charities and the generosity of community leaders – individuals such as Robert and Cheryl McEwen of Toronto and the late Harley Hotchkiss of Calgary. But we still seriously lag behind California, which, with roughly the same population as Canada, has committed $3-billion over 10 years for stem-cell research.
How much further Canada’s star scientists can go, however, is in doubt. According to the Stem Cell Network, there are 40 to 50 early-phase clinical trials using transplanted cells ready to roll out over the next four years. All are currently unfunded.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said his government will continue to make the “key investments in science and technology” but bemoaned Canada’s “less-than-optimal results for those investments.” Stem-cell research has already proved itself a sound investment: Dr. Till and Dr. McCulloch’s work formed the basis of the bone marrow transplantation program at Princess Margaret Hospital that alone has saved thousands of lives. But it will take more than government funding: Private industry and private citizens also need to support life-saving research.
Canadians have good reason to be proud of our country’s contributions to health research and medicine. Two stand out as landmarks: the discovery of insulin in the 1920s and the discovery of stem cells in the 1960s. On Wednesday, at a dinner that brings together many of the country’s leading figures in business, the arts, entertainment, sports and science, the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation will be launched. The event will look back at that great discovery 50 years ago and look forward to ensure that Canadians continue to contribute to stem-cell research and its application to human disease.
Alan Bernstein is chair of the board of directors of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation. He was founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and former head of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise in New York, and is incoming president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.