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Innovation is the talk of the town

February 6, 2018 – Innovation is the talk of Ottawa, with the government having made it the centrepiece theme of its last budget, and currently preparing to roll out billions of dollars in innovation-enhancing policy programs. Yet while artificial intelligence, augmented reality, autonomous vehicles, and other fields are getting the lion’s share of attention, it is critical we not overlook the disruptive advances in medical science that have extraordinary potential to help those who are living with a chronic disease.

As a researcher, I fully commend the government for putting science back on the priority list. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed a science advisor, reaffirmed the need to fund scientific research, and proudly wears his explicit commitment to science-based public policy. These are necessary steps to sustain the long-term health of Canada’s science enterprise. However, while trending new fields dominate policymakers’ attention some existing areas of Canadian excellence continue in uncertainty.

Regenerative medicine is one such underfunded field, yet one with an oversized impact on people and society. It uses stem cells to regenerate or repair cells, tissues or organs. The potential is extraordinary for fighting diseases and illnesses that cost the health care system upwards of $190-billion annually.

Stem cell research was pioneered by two Canadians in the 60s at the University of Toronto. It’s unique, in that stem cells can differentiate into any human cell. It is revolutionary, and has catalyzed an entire new field—regenerative medicine—in which Canadians have continued to make important contributions, driving science forward and into the clinic.

Today, stem cell based treatments are being used to treat leukemia, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and cancers. And this is just the beginning. News recently broke of a clinical trial in which a novel stem cell therapy for type 1 diabetes is being tested. The research from this trial may change the way those who have type 1 manage the disease—ultimately, eliminating constant measuring of blood sugar levels. The trial is supported by the Stem Cell Network. Without this support, this promising research would be done outside the country and Canadians would not be able to access this leading-edge technology.

An experimental therapy is underway in Montreal, that uses stem cells found in cord blood. By using a specialized molecule to grow or expand the stem cells a greater number of people who are fighting blood diseases, like leukemia will be able to receive a blood stem cell transplant. This is truly Canadian talent and ingenuity at work and making a difference.

Two years ago, stem cell science made headlines when researchers in Ottawa successfully eradicated aggressive early-onset multiple sclerosis in certain patients. Completely eradicated. As one patient noted, she went from living in assisted care to having her own home, going back to work fulltime, being able to walk down the aisle, and take up skiing. In short, stem cell breakthroughs are offering a new lease on life.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has signalled that science will be a priority for the next budget, and women and girls will be a strong theme. Given the MS patient profile—three times as many women suffer from the disease than men—and the breakthroughs being made through stem cell research, can we imagine a better public policy fit?

Health and biosciences have been identified as a priority for Canada’s innovation policy framework. This is positive, but we need to address the funding piece, and ward off pressures that suggest specific fields of scientific study should not be singled out for support. In my children’s lifetime, health care will evolve dramatically because of stem cell research. We cannot and should not turn away from it.

Other jurisdictions recognize the benefits of investing in stem cells—economic, population health, and individual patient outcomes. California, Japan, and the United Kingdom are all fighting to lead the field that matters the most for health.

Our decision-makers must seize the opportunity, optimize our first-mover advantage and our national interests, and support Canada’s leadership. Stable, long-term funding for stem cell research and regenerative medicine should be our number-one proof point of Canada’s commitment to science.

Dr. Michael A. Rudnicki, OC, PhD, FRSC, is a senior scientist and director of the regenerative medicine program at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, a professor in the department of medicine, University of Ottawa, and Scientific Director and CEO of the Stem Cell Network. mrudnicki@ohri.ca