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Stem cell breakthroughs could end shortage of vital blood cells

The Challenge:

Photo: Renee Head, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto

Current stem cell-based cancer treatments, including those for leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma and Hodgkin’s disease, require high-dose chemotherapy followed by an injection of hematopoietic stem cells (commonly known as a bone marrow transplant) back into the patient in order to restore his or her blood system. An individual’s own stem cells may be used, or in some cases a donor’s, but the numbers are often insufficient to be effective. As a result, many patients are deprived of access to such therapies and do not survive.

How one NCE is helping:

The Stem Cell Network has been supporting research on this problem since 2001, and now a breakthrough could be close at hand. Network researchers have identified several genes, proteins, small molecules and culture methods that enable human blood cells to be expanded in the laboratory. Clinical studies are projected to begin in 2014 at the Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital in Montreal, the Vancouver General Hospital and the University of Toronto, with the expectation that patients will see improvements as a direct result of these new techniques.

What the experts are saying:

If we had the ability to expand stem cells in the lab then we could significantly expand the use of umbilical cord blood as an alternative to finding a suitable donor or using a patient’s own stem cells. There are thousands of people in North America who would have transplantation become accessible to them if we could expand these cells.

- Dr. Guy Sauvageau, SCN researcher and CEO and Scientific Director, Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer, University of Montreal

The Stem Cell Network’s unwavering support for the cell expansion project has spring-boarded the work from a basic discovery to the threshold of clinical trials. It is destined to become one of the Stem Cell Network’s greatest legacies: since 2001, more than 14 different researchers and their labs from across the country have collaborated and shared their expertise in blood expansion, all with the shared goal of improving the health of patients in Canada and abroad.

- Dr. Michael Rudnicki, SCN Scientific Director 

In this important area of research, Canada ranks among the world’s best. The outstanding work in blood expansion is a testament to the leadership of these research teams and the Stem Cell Network. I have great hope for major advances that will have profound impacts on treating blood disease.

- Dr. George Daley, Harvard Medical School and past president, International Society for Stem Cell Research