CIHR Café Scientifique

On November 3rd I attended an event which is part of a great series of informal discussions  put on by the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR), called Café Scientifique.  These free events allow the public to meet CIHR affiliated scientists, learn about their research, and discuss what the future may hold.  All this in a friendly, informal environment where snacks are provided (very grad student friendly).  Under the guidance of a moderator, each of the four invited panelists was alloted time to briefly introduce themselves and their area of research.  Following a short break, the panelists and members of the audience began a group discussion.  The topic of this evening’s meeting was Adult Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine: Separating Hope from Hype.   The presenters for the panel were:

Cindi Morshead works in the CCBR (amongst other appointments), and is investigating methods to encourage stem cell proliferation in in situ. Her lab blurb:

Our lab is interested in the most fundamental of questions regarding the behaviour and characterization of neural stem cells. We use a number of in vivo and in vitro techniques, cell transplantation, imaging, genetic manipulations and animal models to ask about the inherent plasticity of stem cells (are all stem cells created equal?), the factors that regulate fate decisions, proliferation kinetics and functional consequences of stem cell modification. Understanding the fundamental properties is a first step to utilizing these cells in regenerative medicine strategies and we are actively pursuing the role of stem cells in models of disease such as stroke and spinal cord injury.

Freda Miller is a research scientists at Sick Kids hospital, and is researching techniques to implant stem cell in a network of tissue so that the cells adapt to  the function inherent in the network.  Her lab blurb:

During embryonic development the nervous system is confronted with a problem of enormous complexity; to progress from a thin sheet of neuroepithelial cells to a network of neuronal circuitry that is able to process sensory information and generate an appropriate motor output. One of the ways that the mammalian nervous system achieves this end point is by overproducing both neurons and neuronal connections, and then eliminating those cells and/or connections that are not appropriate. However, this is not something that is limited to the developing nervous system. Many of the same cellular mechanisms remain “in place” in adult animals, thereby allowing structural and/or functional remodeling in response to physiological stimuli, and providing repair mechanisms for the injured and traumatized mature nervous system.

These complex developmental processes are determined by an intimate interplay between intrinsic cellular programs and environmental cues. Within this broad context, my laboratory is interested in understanding how growth factors and neural activity regulate the genesis, survival and growth of developing neurons and regulate the establishment of appropriate neuronal connectivity.

Bill Stanford is also a research scientist here at the CCBR.  His lab is a hybrid wet-lab & systems biology lab.  His lab blurb:

Our lab works at the interface between molecular genetics, stem cell biology, and bioengineering to uncover the mechanisms underlying human disease and develop novel regenerative and tissue engineered approached to treat disease

Shane Green is a bioethicist.  He’s currently a member of the CIHR’s Stem Cell Oversight committee, which guides policy related to stem cell research here in Canada.

Dr. Shane Green is the Director of Outreach at the Ontario Genomics Institute (OGI), in Toronto.  He is responsible for overseeing OGI’s public outreach and education initiatives, which aim to increase awareness and understanding of genomics and related sciences and their impacts on society.  Shane also provides support to researchers funded through OGI in considering the ethical, economic, environmental, legal and social issues (“GE3LS”) related to their research.

I learned a lot about aspects of stem cell research, much of which approached the border between science and science fiction.  Though my excitement was tempered somewhat by the necessarily slow progress from lab to clinic.  It’s going to be maybe 20-30 years before we see any significant clinical treatments in Canada, for many good and sound reasons.  However, I do want to impress upon you that some really exciting research is going on these days in stem cells.   A few highlights:

  1. Bill mentioned this paper by Shinya Yamanaka, which turned developmental biology on its head by demonstrating that fibroblast cells (both in mouse and human) could be induced to become pluripotent stem cells via the introduction of only four different transcription factors.  This is crazy stuff.  Amongst other things, it may not be necessary to use embryonic stem cells in future if we want to climb and then descend the cell lineage tree.
  2. Both Drs. Morshead and Miller are investigating how to treat severe spinal chord injuries by stem cell therapy.  Success here could lead to many different therapies for spinal chord and brain diseases that are currently untreatable.  They mentioned that a clinical trial is already underway in the UK to treat patients that have suffered stroke.
  3. In future, we might be able to grow things like blood or bone marrow using stem cell therapy with cells sampled from the donor, eliminating any prospect of immuno-rejection. (Update: researchers at McMaster have just published a method for developing blood cells from skin cells.  Amazing!)

I really look forward to attending more of these.  They happen all across the country, so check out the website & follow them on facebook to find out when one is happening near you.