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Stem cell centre cash comes with a catch: $800,000 donation from U.S. group challenges Ottawa to raise $2.8 million

September 29, 2005

By Joanne Laucius
The Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa's new Centre for Stem Cell and Gene Therapy will get an $800,000 donation from a prestigious U.S. foundation. But there's a catch -- it has to raise more than $2 million on its own.

The centre at the Ottawa Health Research Institute has taken up the Kresge Foundation's challenge. And now the race is on to raise the money before the November 2006 deadline.

"It's the only foundation that treats its own donation as a challenge to the community," said Dr. Ron Worton, president and chief executive officer of the health research institute, the research arm of the Ottawa Hospital.

The centre, currently under construction and scheduled to open next June, will make Ottawa even more of a hot spot for stem cell research than it is now. "We're at the forefront of this research. The community wants us to stake this claim," said Susan Doyle, president and chief executive officer of the Ottawa Hospital Foundation.

Dr. Worton has been recruiting scientists from all over the world for the health research institute. When the centre opens, it will house 10 or 11 stem cell researchers, each with a staff of 10 to 15 people.

The race is also on to convince Ottawa residents to donate toward building a new centre for stem cell research, an area that holds great potential for healing a number of degenerative diseases, including diabetes, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and stroke. Stem cells also contain all the genetic information necessary to regenerate new skin and repair damaged organs.

Some amphibians and fish can regenerate legs and eyes. Already one institute researcher, Cathy Tsilfidis, is studying how newts regenerate limbs.

Dr. Worton admits that the first stem cell trials are still five years away. But it's the vast potential for cures that the hospital foundation will be pitching to service groups, church groups and corporate donors.

"This is about the people we know," said Ms. Doyle. "This is close to home stuff. I don't think we as lay people realize how quickly medical research is moving."

Dr. Worton, as the hospital's ambassador for stem cell research, has given about 300 media interviews on the subject in the last four years.

He has explained the intricacies of stem cells to potential donors and fielded questions about the controversial use of embryonic stem cells, a practice he says is accepted by three-quarters of the population.

Stem cell research is not a hard sell, said Dr. Worton, who predicts stem cell therapies for Type 1 diabetes will be the first to be available, likely followed by therapies for muscular dystrophy. Ottawa researchers are world leaders in this area.

"I'm hopeful in the next five to 10 years, we'll be able to do some muscular replacement," said Dr. Worton.

The hospital is already on its way to the goal. The Kresge Foundation, which last year awarded more than $119 million to groups in the United States, Canada, Britain and France, requires applicants to show they have had some success raising money, said Ms. Doyle.

Building the new $18.8-million stem cell centre is one of many projects being funded by the hospital foundation's Legacy Campaign. Now two-thirds of the way to anticipated completion in the fall of 2007, the campaign has raised about $71 million of its $100-million goal, said Ms. Doyle.

Federal and provincial governments have each committed $4.4 million to the stem cell centre, and there have been contributions of about $1.2 in equipment.

The hospital foundation has already earmarked $6 million of the Legacy Campaign funds for this project, leaving only $2.8 million to go, said Ms. Doyle.

Note: Reproduced with permission from the Ottawa Citizen.