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Reseacher Jessica Norberg works in the STEMCELL Technologies lab in Vancouver October 28, 2014.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

A coalition of prominent scientists, entrepreneurs and charities is calling on Ottawa to commit half a billion dollars over the next 10 years to boost stem cell research and development in Canada.

The request to the federal government works out to one-third of the $1.5-billion in private and public funding the group says this country needs to remain at or near the top of a field that two Canadian scientists helped found with their discovery of adult stem cells in the early 1960s.

"The rest of the world is not standing still," said Alan Bernstein, chair of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, the scientific charity that spearheaded the new Canadian Stem Cell Strategy and Action Plan, unveiled Wednesday in Ottawa. "We risk slowing down our investment while the rest of the world is speeding up, so relatively we will fall further and further behind. This sort of research and the clinical trials are both long-term [prospects]. They need sustained investment and they are expensive."

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In an accompanying report by the consulting firm KPMG, the coalition laid out its goal of producing between five and 10 new made-in-Canada therapies that could "transform the health-care landscape" in the next decade, such as developing a cell therapy to cure diabetes or using stem cells to potentially regenerate scarred tissue after a heart attack.

If the funding materializes, Canada's stem cell industry could create 20 new companies, $405-million in tax revenue and more than 12,000 jobs and between 2015 and 2025, according to the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, a not-for-profit organization that tries to move stem-cell breakthroughs from the lab to the clinic.

The CCRM is one of a slew of organizations and companies participating in the coalition. Dr. Bernstein said some corporations and philanthropists have already offered to contribute financially, but the group is hoping Ottawa will come through with major funding – averaging $50-million a year – that could act as a catalyst for private-sector contributors.

Canadian scientists James Till and Ernest McCulloch demonstrated the existence of adult stem cells in Toronto in 1961.

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the unique ability to regenerate as they divide. Under certain conditions, stem cells can grow into organ or tissue cells with specific functions, which is why some scientists have invested so much hope in them as potential treatments or cures for Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis, among other ailments.

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