James Price is president and CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation. Dr. Janet Rossant is interim director of the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine and immediate past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.
Three weeks ago, people across the nation watched Gordie Howe, Canada's legendary Mr. Hockey, return home to Saskatchewan for a tribute dinner. Given the debilitating strokes he experienced only a few months ago, his presence was a major feat. Like all Canadians, we were thrilled to see him make his way through the crowd of cheering fans.
Having his recovery attributed to an experimental stem cell treatment in Mexico, though, has shone a spotlight on the complicated issue of stem cell tourism. While there are many reasons to be optimistic about the new wave of stem cell treatments on the horizon, Canadians should not conclude that cure-alls are just a plane ticket away.
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The real impact of many of the experimental stem cell treatments offered abroad is a question mark. They are often unregulated and, as a result, the broader scientific community does not have the tools or information needed to evaluate and verify the results. This places enormous pressure on those who choose to step outside Canada's health system in search of experimental stem cell treatments. There are many examples of desperate Canadians paying steep prices for questionable treatments in foreign lands.
A better solution is made-in-Canada treatments. Give Canadians access to safe, cutting-edge and rigorously reviewed stem cell clinical trials here in Canada. Once fully proven, these treatments would be available across the country.
This is entirely doable – and would build on national strengths. Canada is the original home of stem cell research. Two Canadian scientists, James Till and Ernest McCulloch, discovered blood stem cells in Toronto in the 1960s and Canada continues to be home to some of the world's greatest experts in this field. We have bioengineers building better cells and tissues for therapy and we have world-class clinical groups ready to take these into patients in multicentre trials. Our public health care system will make sure that all Canadians have access to new, effective therapies, once proven.
Several stem cell-related clinical trials are already under way in Canada. A trial that used bone marrow stem cell transplantation to replace the immune systems of patients with intractable multiple sclerosis produced promising results and a new MS trial is under way in Ottawa and Winnipeg. We are also getting much closer to treatments for diabetes using stem cell implants to replace insulin injections, based on the Edmonton protocol for islet transplantation. A clinical trial now running in Ottawa and Montreal is testing the effectiveness of genetically altered cells in treating patients after heart attacks. Canada is also playing a leading role in a North American trial to test stem cell injections for spinal cord injury.
But we can do more. The Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, representing a coalition of researchers, doctors, health charities, business leaders and philanthropists, has developed a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy and Action Plan. It would see Canada become a magnet for more high quality clinical trials, and lead the delivery of five to 10 new therapies to the clinic within 10 years.
Designed as a private-public partnership, the strategy calls for a federal investment of $50-million per year over 10 years – to be matched at least two times over by other sources. One Canadian company alone, Stemcell Technologies of Vancouver, has already committed $350-million to research and development in the cause.
Canadians should not need to travel abroad where experimental treatments are unproven and could carry serious health risks. We all want our loved ones to have access to the best care available when they need it. So let's get this done.