Ottawa becoming hub for stem cell research thanks to collaborative approach

The Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine says Ottawa is becoming a hub for stem cell research, on par with places such as California that invest a lot more resources.

City is putting the right pieces together to punch above its weight, say experts

Dr. Bill Stanford speaks at Stem Cell 101: The Promise and the Potential

Ottawa is becoming a hub for stem cell research thanks to a collaborative approach that allows scientists to easily turn research into clinical trials, said scientists at a Stem Cell 101 forum held Tuesday evening at the Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus.

The city only has 25 stem cell scientists compared to Toronto's 115 but is on par with places like California, which spends billions of dollars in the field, according to the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Lisa Willemse says it's really incredible to watch what's happening here in Ottawa. (CBC News)

"They're doing it right here. They're putting all the right pieces together to make Ottawa a real powerhouse in stem cell research," says Lisa Willemse, a senior communications advisor.

​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.

Stem cell research success

In Ottawa, researchers recently used stem cells to treat septic shock, and a study at the University of Ottawa found that duchenne muscular dystrophy affects stem cells.

Clinical trials are also underway in other areas including multiple sclerosis and heart attacks.

"Sometimes when science gets too big it becomes siloed," said Dr. Bill Stanford, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa.

"Right here in Ottawa people work together instead of working by themselves and that makes things go much faster and better."
Stem cells are unspecified cells that have the potential to develop into different types of adult cells. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty)

Stanford was one of three physicians who spoke at a public forum Tuesday night.

It was the fourth and final in a series of similar events across the province that aimed to answer a series of questions for those who attended, including what kind of stem cell treatments are being developed and which ones are likely to be delivered in the future.

Dr. Harry Atkins, a physician at the Ottawa Hospital's blood and marrow transport program, calls the city a fertile ground for research.

"Things like muscle stem cells to repair problems with the muscles, or problems with the heart… I think that's going to be the next big thing that goes on in Ottawa," he said.