Do stem cells hold the cure for cancers, heart disease, diabetes and the other diseases that kill millions each year? Absolutely.
My wife and I donated more than $21-million in that belief.
While stem cells were discovered 50 years ago at the University of Toronto, it wasn't until the past decade that their astounding potential to change medicine's entire approach to fighting disease really took hold. This week 4,200 stem cell researchers from 52 countries are meeting in Toronto to discuss cures that were thought to be science fiction a generation ago, but that are already becoming a reality.
Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can renew themselves indefinitely. This means they can generate specialized cells, such as muscle cells and heart cells. So if stem cells in a lab can be coaxed into producing different specialized cells, they can provide a virtually unlimited source of cells to repair or replace damaged or diseased cells and tissues.
Some of their possible uses include creating fully functional heart tissue ready for grafting on to a damaged heart; repairing spinal cord injuries using nerve stem cells; restoring vision lost through diabetes and macular degeneration; stimulating stem cells in the brain to reduce the effects of stroke and "curing" diabetes with pancreatic stem cells that produce insulin.
These advances share three intriguing qualities. First, they embody "regenerative medicine" because they harness the power of stem cells to repair or replace diseased cells, tissues and organs. Second, they're all being worked on right now by scientists at the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University Health Network in Toronto, which is Canada's largest medical research hub. But even more important, they're all part of the Centre's Accelerated Discovery Initiative that has put a two-year time frame and clearly established outcomes around them all. Indeed, these projects were created precisely because they have outstanding potential to transform basic science into clinical applications. This breakthrough research is solely funded by private donors.
Why is this so important? Well, it's been said that if you think research is expensive, try disease. True. But I believe there exists a mindset and culture that allows hospitals, research institutes and laboratories to say: "Thanks very much for your donation … and we'll get back to you in 15 years."
Unfortunately, our health-care system doesn't have 15 years. Already, it consumes half the provincial budget and costs are rising rapidly. There's just no way governments can build hospitals fast enough to keep up with the demand.
But regenerative medicine can transform the delivery of health care, with lower costs, and faster and more effective treatments. By putting timelines and milestones around stem cell research, I believe we can improve the chances of success.
So what does regenerative medicine need to advance even more quickly?
It needs many more supporters, and even greater understanding by the public of its vast promise. It needs $50 and $100 and $1,000 donations as much as it needs $1,000,000 donations. It needs much greater awareness (no one said understanding how stem cells work is easy).
Nothing else is so profoundly revolutionizing conventional approaches to treating all kinds of disease. Nothing else offers so much hope to finally defeating the most devastating killers of our age.
Robert McEwen is the co-founder of the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University Health Network in Toronto ( www.joinstemcellcity.com). He is chairman of US Gold and the founder of Goldcorp Inc.