Reasons to Love Toronto: No. 18, because we’re stem cell pioneers
Toronto is home to some of the top stem cell research institutes in the world, including the McEwen Centre, the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, and SickKids’ Transplant and Regenerative Medicine Centre. It all started one Sunday in 1961 in a research lab at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, when two cancer researchers made a discovery that would radically alter the science of pathology. Ernest McCulloch, a Toronto-born cellular biologist in oversized spectacles and a bow tie, and James Till, a tall, lean-faced biophysicist from Alberta, had transplanted irradiated bone marrow into a lab mouse to determine whether it affected cell growth. It didn’t. But they did find that the transplanted cells had the uncanny ability to multiply and, most astonishingly, duplicate the mouse’s blood cells. At first, they were labelled with the distinctly sci-fi moniker “colony-forming units.” They were later renamed stem cells.
While the U.S. has seen its stem cell research stymied by religious debates and disputes over federal funding, there’s much less moralizing bureaucratic red tape in Canada—the federal and provincial governments recently committed $50 million to funding major projects and infrastructure. As a result, Toronto has emerged as a competitive arena for the field’s top scientists. Last July, John Dick, a senior scientist at the Ontario Cancer Institute, made another groundbreaking stem cell discovery when he used flow cytometry technology—a kind of super-high-tech cell-sorting system—to isolate the human blood stem cell from an umbilical cord. Now that it has been isolated, researchers will attempt to figure out how it regenerates, which will allow us to create a plentiful supply of pure stem cells. In other words, in the next decade, cancer patients may be able to receive their very own, ready-made regenerative blood systems.