Breaking Through on Made-in-Ontario Stem Cell Treatments

Fifty years ago in Toronto, Doctors James Till and Ernest McCulloch discovered stem cells – the agents for all tissue renewal and repair in the human body – and regenerative medicine was born. Little did they know back then that their discovery would lead to a whole new scientific field in which Ontario is positioned as a major player.

There are more than 200 types of human cells, but only stem cells can regenerate tissue and organs, opening the door for extraordinary medical advancements. Using the patient’s own stem cells or those from a donor, regenerative medicine aims to repair, replace, and regenerate damaged or diseased tissues and organs for people suffering from a severe sudden injury, like a stroke, or chronic disease like heart failure. Unlike pharmacological therapies, the goal of Regenerative Medicine is to restore the structure and function of the damaged organ, rather than just treat the symptoms of the disease. It also delivers lasting repairs that do not have the limited lifetimes of other synthetic implantable devices.

Restoring function can be done in different ways. Stem cells can be transplanted into the patient’s body where they can generate new cells to repair damaged tissues, such as damaged heart muscle following a heart attack. Tissue engineered products use bioengineering approaches by putting cells together with scaffolding materials to create artificial tissues, such as a skin replacement construct to repair severe burns.

This is an emerging new technology, and Ontarians suffering from devastating diseases can only get access to these innovative therapies by participating in ground-breaking clinical trials.

The Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine (OIRM) is a non-profit that was established by the Government of Ontario in 2015, to accelerate the translation of stem cells and regenerative medicine discoveries into lifesaving new products and therapies, for the benefit of Ontarians, Canadians, and the world.

Since inception, OIRM has achieved a leadership position in stem cell research by funding promising new therapies. Back in 2015, there were only 5 clinical trials in Ontario. Now, there are 22 across a broad range of diseases and conditions, including: septic shock, lung disease in extremely premature infants, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, heart failure, pulmonary hypertension, blood diseases and severe COVID pneumonia.

Sharon Charlebois, 73, spent 25 days in the ICU at The Ottawa Hospital fighting a severe case of COVID-19 earlier this year and received a novel made-in-Ontario stem cell therapy,

“I don’t remember much about my time in the ICU, but I am grateful that I could participate in a clinical trial that offered a new stem cell therapy to treat my COVID-19. I truly believe this therapy saved my life. I think it’s important to support research like this, because you never know when you or your loved ones might need it.”- Sharon Charlebois

Medical breakthroughs cannot happen without clinical trials to prove that new therapies are safe and effective, and clinical trials cannot happen without funding. Successes are made possible through the contribution of many public and private sector partners in Ontario.

To continue as a leader in this innovative space, OIRM needs support from the province to achieve its mission of transforming the treatment of incurable diseases, making Ontario a global leader in the development and dissemination of stem cell-based products and therapies.
In addition to the obvious benefits of providing effective new therapies for patients with debilitating and deadly diseases, regenerative medicine advancements may reduce costs to the healthcare system, by reducing the overall economic burden of chronic disease treatments. Given the pandemic challenges of the past 18 months, now is the time to embrace every opportunity to safeguard and support our public healthcare system, for a resilient future.

At no point in recent history has the health of Ontarians been prioritized by the provincial government as urgently as it is right now. Medical treatments are evolving rapidly, and Ontario is punching way above its weight as a global hot spot for regenerative medicine research. And given the need to reignite the provincial economy, the medical revolution started by Doctors Till and McCulloch has the potential to deliver significant returns to our province for decades to come. But unfortunately, support for stem cell clinical trials in Ontario was one of the first casualties of the last round of budget cuts.

It is now time that made-in-Ontario stem cell research again becomes a priority for the government of Ontario, and maybe then there will be good reason to feel hopeful about the future of healthcare.

Dr. Duncan Stewart, President & Scientific Director of the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Executive Vice-President, Research at The Ottawa Hospital

Dr. Tim Smith, Board Chair, Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine and CEO of Octane Medical Group