The Stem Cell Revolution

Research promises new possibilities for patients — and exciting long-term commercial prospects.

When Rob McEwen's mother and sister died within a few months of each other just over four years ago, the outspoken gold-mining executive was confronted with a reality many of us would prefer to ignore. “In the space of four or five months, two members of my family went,” says the 56-year-old founder and former chairman of Vancouver-based gold-producer Goldcorp Inc. “I suddenly met someone I didn't expect to meet for a long time, and that was mortality.”

Preventing death is, ultimately, impossible. Slowing its arrival is not. With that in mind, McEwen and his wife, Cheryl, donated $10 million in 2003 to help establish the University Health Network's McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Toronto. The centre, launched with much fanfare on Oct. 25, will serve as a hub for top researchers in the field of regenerative medicine. It is here that scientists are hoping to harness the power of embryonic stem cells, which, coupled with their ability to self-renew indefinitely, have an almost magical ability to differentiate themselves into more than 200 specialized cell types.

Stem cells are the precursors to just about every type of specialized cell in the body. They can be found most readily in the umbilical cords of infants and in various adult tissues–the skin, the lining of the gut, the blood. But although they are promising, in terms of possible therapeutic applications, adult and cord blood cells are less malleable than their embryonic stem-cell counterparts, because they are already somewhat specialized and cannot be converted into as many different cell types. The first stem-cell therapy was discovered nearly 50 years ago–when doctors figured out that adult bone marrow contained stem cells that could be transplanted into leukemia patients. However, it wasn't until 1998 that researchers isolated the first line, or colony, of embryonic stem cells from in vitro fertilization.

The promise of these so-called embryonic miracle makers is enormous. By providing an unlimited supply of replacement tissues to help treat everything from diabetes to Parkinson's, embryonic stem cells could completely change medicine. They are more than tools in potentially revolutionary therapies–they also offer a never-before-seen window into the early stages of human development. Stem-cell therapy could also save the Canadian government billions of dollars in chronic health-care costs–and potentially fuel a multibillion-dollar industry in stem-cell therapeutics.

The official launch of the McEwen Centre comes at a crucial time in the history of stem-cell research. On Nov. 7, the Australian Senate voted to lift the country's ban on somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT–the therapeutic cloning of human embryos for research purposes, which is still illegal in Canada. A day later in the United States–just after the U.S. midterm elections, in which Democrats won control of the House of Representatives and the Senate–House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi vowed that within the first 100 hours of the new Congress in January, she would seek votes on federal funding for stem-cell research. That could reverse a July 2006 veto by President George W. Bush to limit federally funded stem-cell research to stem-cell lines, or colonies, that were derived on or before Aug. 9, 2001.

Those developments followed on the heels of a high-profile spat between Canadian-born sitcom-star-turned-stem-cell-research-advocate Michael J. Fox and right-wing radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, in which Limbaugh had accused the 45-year-old actor of exaggerating his Parkinson's disease symptoms in a campaign-style television advertisement supporting Democratic senate challenger Claire McCaskill. She won, unseating Missouri's Republican incumbent, and joined newly elected senators from Maryland, New Jersey and Ohio who support stem-cell research.

Embryonic stem-cell research has officially become a cause célèbre–a political and ethical hot potato. The debate that weighs the value of a human embryo against the potential of that embryo to save many more lives is a contentious one. Although the Democrats' sweep of both houses of Congress is likely to intensify that debate, powerful lobby groups from the religious right in the United States have been successful thus far in stunting progress in the field of publicly funded stem-cell research.

But while debate rages on in the corridors of power, progress is being made in a dozen or so research labs around the world. In Canada, where attitudes toward embryonic stem-cell research are generally more liberal, the excitement behind stem-cell research is building. In Toronto, scientists have already been able to grow heart and blood cells in a petri dish using stem cells. In Ottawa, a small Canadian biotech firm called StemPath Inc. is working on producing a drug that will coax a person's existing stem cells in the heart to regenerate themselves, and help repair any damage caused after a heart attack. A group of Edmonton scientists have successfully transplanted pancreatic islet cells from cadavers into diabetic patients.

This is now. In 10 or 15 years, the dream is that doctors will be able to take bags of differentiated stem cells created by biotech companies and transplant or inject them into patients in order to repair damaged tissue. So-called designer drugs, or those that could modulate or target specific stem-cell types in the body toward a particular goal, may also be widely available. These would help patients heal themselves by generating the cells they need to repair damaged tissue. Overall, the worldwide market in stem-cell therapeutics is predicted to reach anywhere between US$10 billion to US$30 billion by 2015.

McEwen, currently chairman and chief executive of Denver-based US Gold, doesn't pretend to be an expert when it comes to the science of regenerative medicine. But the veteran businessman knows a good thing when he sees it. As he points out, there are striking similarities between getting gold out of the ground and harnessing the transformative power of stem cells. First, says McEwen, you need to take a risk. Then, you need patience.