At first click, and even after several more, a new science website might seem simply to be a slick multi-media hub to school the public on stem-cell biology and research.
But joinstemcellcity.com, a creation of the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine launched with great fanfare Wednesday in Toronto, has a much grander aim. It is intended to rally enough public support that the progress of stem-cell science will not be slowed by political chill or poor funding.
In a field dogged by ethical controversy, confusion, court battles and stop-and-go government grants, the new website has been designed to foster a powerful social network of patients and their advocates to fight for the cause.
"If you have a groundswell of public support, the work will have support," said Heidi Forman, the McEwen Centre's director of marketing and operations. "We learned from the lesson of California."
In California, stem-cell research garnered enough public backing to allow scientists there to do an end-run around the restrictive U.S. funding policies in place in 2004. Under the famous Proposition 71, Californians voted to support the research with bond sales that raised enough money to create the $3-billion California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.
Ms. Forman said the team at McEwen had a "think-tank" meeting with staff at CIRM before launching the site and conducted research that showed people tend to donate "into an abyss … not really sure how to give, or where to give."
Clicking through the new site after the press conference, Ms. Forman said it includes a virtual tour of the lab so people can see the potential of the work. Those who join will also be able to submit questions to researchers and to receive stem-cell research updates for the disease they are interested in. The site also allows donations for specific projects.
Gordon Keller, a leading stem-cell scientist and director of the McEwen research team, said the site "is partly to raise money." But, he said, it is also to educate – "I would say there is still a big gap in knowledge [about stem cells]."
Robert Klein, the California real estate developer who spearheaded the bond-sale proposition and went on to chair CIRM, was also on stage to launch the Toronto-based website, saying he "hopes [the website] will provide the knowledge for people to reach out and push their governments."
Mr. Klein, whose son has Type 1 juvenile diabetes, is among more than 3,000 stem-cell research advocates and scientists in Toronto this week for the annual meeting of the International Society of Stem Cell Research. In a speech later in the day, he stressed the importance of researchers having patient advocates.
"The critics can no longer say this is just for the benefit of scientists [looking for funds]," said Mr. Klein, who received an ISSCR public service award for his efforts. "They're faced with human suffering, they're faced with the hopes of families."
Few areas in medicine have generated as much hope – and hype – as the potential of stem-cell research. With the ability to grow into most of the tissue types in the body, stem cells have, theoretically, the potential to be used to replace or repair damaged tissues – growing into insulin-producing cells for people with diabetes, for instance, or new brain cells for people with neurological disorders.
Embryonic stem cells are the most powerful type of blank-slate cell. But since a human embryo is usually destroyed to harvest them, those who believe life begins at conception are morally opposed to research in the area. While scientists are increasingly investigating stem cells from other sources, those taken from embryos remain a prime area of research. In Canada, embryonic stem-cell research must be conducted under tight restrictions on donated embryos considered surplus at fertility clinics.
Rob and Cheryl McEwen, whose philanthropy created the centre that bears their name in 2003, have made at least two donations of $10-million to support stem-cell research. Mr. McEwen, CEO and chairman of US Gold Corporation, said on Wednesday that the deaths of his sister and mother four months apart, and the looming health care demands of aging baby boomers, inspired him to support regenerative medicine.
The Ontario government has given $27-million for stem-cell research, including the backing of the new Ontario Stem Cell Initiative, a collaboration of stem-cell scientists in the province. Premier Dalton McGuinty, who also attended the website launch, said, "This enterprise gives us moral purpose."