Stem Cell Research: Building a Canadian Network

Stem cell researchers around Canada are joining forces. They are looking to share facilities and innovative research ideas through the creation of two new research initiatives: the Centre for Stem Cell Research and the Stem Cell Network.

Centre for Stem Cell Research

The soon-to-be-built Centre for Stem Cell Research is an attempt to draw together in one place the cream of stem cell researchers in Canada. The Ottawa Health Research Institute (OHRI) will build and staff the centre with approximately $48 million in financing from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Innovation Trust, the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund, and The Ottawa Hospital Foundation. The 29,000-square-foot space is due to open next spring at the General Campus of The Ottawa Hospital.

The centre will be "the only facility of it's kind in the country," says Michael Rudnicki, a senior scientist and director of the molecular medicine program at OHRI. The centre will adopt a multidisciplinary approach toward stem cell research, and it will employ scientists "who will work on a diverse array of embryonic and adult stem cells," adds Rudnicki, who is also the centre's director. A large focus of the centre will be on adult stem cell research; however, Rudnicki acknowledges that there is also potential for model organism investigators to join the centre.

Rudnicki's current top priority is to recruit the best scientists in the field; a task he hopes will be made easier by the strength of the centre's funding. Indeed, a significant portion of that funding has been set aside for start-up monies and salary for seven academic research positions for the next 7 years. "Excellence is really the main criterion--we are looking for outstanding scientists," he says. Eager to sort through the pile of curriculum vitae's on his desk, Rudnicki is particularly looking for molecular geneticists working on different stem cell systems; scientists with genomics bents like proteomics, microarray analysis, and bioinformatics; and a couple of clinician scientists. (Details of the positions can be found on the OHRI Web site.)

Competition for researchers in North America, however, is stiff, and Rudnicki doesn't expect to fill all seven positions quickly. But going in the centre's favour, he points out, is the fact that Ottawa is now fifth in the country in terms of overall biomedical funding. "There is a huge growth in biomedical research in Ottawa and an exciting scientific environment, with recruiting going on all over the place."

Stem Cell Network

The newly created Stem Cell Network is a cross-country coalition of stem cell researchers that also aims to create a critical mass of stem cell scientists. But this time the space they will occupy is virtual and not real. The idea for the network began about 2 years ago when 12 scientists from across Canada coordinated the funding application for a new Networks of Centres of Excellence, Canada's flagship science and technology program. Interest in the proposal grew quickly, and the Stem Cell Network now involves more than 50 leading researchers at 24 Canadian institutions. These scientists collectively determine the focus of the network and propose the direction of national stem cell research efforts.

"What the establishment of the Stem Cell Network has done," says Barbara Beckett, the Stem Cell Network's Manager of Scientific Affairs and Training, "is that it is has got people in related disciplines talking to one another." As a result, she adds, "there's a lot of new ideas and collaborations coming out of [these] discussions."

The research activities of Stem Cell Network members are organized into four themes. Three of these themes represent the key scientific steps in moving stem cells from the laboratory into the clinic--the bioengineering and biology of stem cells, and the clinical applications of that research. The fourth theme addresses the ethical, legal, social, and policy issues related to the origins and use of stem cells.

One of the objectives of the network is to train and educate specialists in stem cell research, in order to "create a critical mass of knowledge," says Beckett. "We want to encourage cross-disciplinary training," she adds, giving as an example a student who is working on ethics and on basic research.

The Network Training Program, which began last September, offers awards to three categories of scientists: postdocs, graduate students, and research students. The network awards provide 50% of the stipends of students and postdocs working with network investigators--the investigators are expected to make up the remainder. Modelled after a program at the University of British Columbia, the research student category is aimed at recently graduated bachelor's students who are considering a career in research but haven't yet decided to pursue one. The research students get their feet wet with a 1-year training appointment in the lab of a network investigator and are paid at the same rate as graduate students. "We want them to make an informed choice," Beckett tells Next Wave Canada.

The Stem Cell Network is working on creating several new aspects of the training program. One of the plans is to fund students to work in industrial labs or pharmaceutical companies, furthering the network's goal of establishing partnerships with industry in the future.

And speaking of partnerships, Beckett expects that the network and the Centre for Stem Cell Research will collaborate, with the latter providing the physical space and common facilities for stem cell investigators who belong to both organizations.

It is hoped that the concentrated efforts of both organizations will not only move stem cell research forward in Canada and boost the country's reputation in stem cell research, but also retain it's world-class scientists and ultimately attract new talent from offshore.

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