The field of stem cell therapy is growing rapidly with the promise to revolutionize medical treatments. But in order to take it from research to reality, experts say much more time, support and funding is needed.

Canada has long been considered a world leader in stem cell research — in part because the field was pioneered here in 1961, when Dr. James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch discovered the existence of stem cells at the Toronto-based Ontario Cancer Institute.

More recent discoveries by Canadian scientists include a method to change adult skin cells into stem cells and a way to convert blood into nerve cells.

"It is an exciting time. This is an area where Canada does punch above its weight," says Janet Rossant, executive director of the Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine.

But Rossant and other experts suggest our level of funding commitment hasn't kept pace with what's happening elsewhere in the world.

"When we're talking about investment in research, we are not, as a country, investing the same percentage in research and development as some of our competitor countries. But we do extremely well on relatively small investments," she says.

'It's an exciting time. This is an area where Canada does punch above its weight.' - Janet Rossant, Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine

Governments and corporations around the world are heavily investing in stem cell research, though the field is still early in its development. A survey from a U.S.-based market-research firm found the global stem-cell market is expected to reach $40 billion US by 2020 and $180 billion US by 2030.

Meanwhile, new therapies are progressing into early clinical trials, with hopes that the regenerative capacity of stem cells could be used to better treat — or possibly even cure — a variety of diseases, from spinal-cord injury to diabetes, multiple sclerosis to Parkinson's disease.

Canada has held some of its own clinical trials, such as a 2015 trial in Winnipeg to test a new stem cell therapy aimed at reducing the effects of MS.

Still, these new treatments are some time away from getting past the clinical-trial stage and it will be costly to make them available for widespread public use.

MS Winnipeg

In 2015, the Winnipeg Health Science Centre hosted clinical trials for a new stem cell therapy to treat multiple sclerosis. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

"You really do not want to be rushing these (treatments) to the clinic," Rossant says. "You want to be sure they're safe and they're effective."

In spite of such hurdles, Rossant says she expects many new stem cell treatments to appear in the clinic in the next two to three years, with one or two of those advancing to that next level of clinical trial in about five years.

"It's happening. It's happening here and it's happening around the world. A step at a time," she says.

Stem cell advocates call for strategy

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $20 million in federal funding to help establish a new facility for the Centre for the Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, an organization working to find ways to manufacture stem cell therapy treatments for widespread use. 

Trudeau announces funding for regenerative medicine2:12

Ottawa had also announced a $114-million grant for a stem cell research hub at the University of Toronto in July 2015, to be called "Medicine by Design."

Figures from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research show the government has invested about $705 million in stem cell research since 2001, including $64.5 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

In comparison, the state of California — with a population similar to that of Canada — committed $3 billion in funding in 2004, to be rolled out over about 10 years.

Japan, Korea and Singapore, with their aging populations, are also making large amounts of money available for stem cell research and regenerative medicine.

"I think Canada, while we've been at the forefront, we need to make that next big investment to move the field forward," says James Price, CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation.

According to a 2009 industry briefing on regenerative medicine from MaRS, Canada ranked first in the world on citations for stem cell research, third in influential patents and fourth in government funding. 

The foundation, a coalition of research and advocacy groups, is calling for a $1.5-billion national stem cell strategy to help maintain Canada's leading role over the next decade.

The foundation would like to see one-third of the funding provided by Ottawa, with the rest coming from corporate or private investors.

Stem Cells

Many countries are putting more investment into stem cell research. The state of California alone has committed $3 billion over 10 years to the growing field. (The Associated Press)

Canada spends more than $200 billion annually on health care, with two-thirds of that going toward treatment of incurable diseases. Since stem cell therapy holds the potential to cure some of these diseases, Price says it's a worthwhile investment in Canada's health-care future.

But the need for a national plan, Price suggests, goes beyond more funding: it's also about focus.

"What we recognize is that we need to have a sustainable commitment to achieve the objective that we have in the plan," he says. "Our strategy is focused on 10 new curative therapies in the clinic in 10 years. It's focused on producing 12,000 jobs for Canadians and it's focused on attracting significant private-sector investment into the area. 

"And to do that, you need a long-term commitment."