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Stem cell research centre brings the best to Ottawa: 'Outstanding' recruits to work at new facility

November 15, 2006

By Suzanne Ma
The Ottawa Citizen

A new stem cell research facility for Ottawa also means a massive brain gain.

"We've recruited some of the most outstanding scientists from across Canada and outside the country and we're not finished yet," said Ronald Worton, retiring CEO of the Ottawa Health Research Institute. Of the 13 researchers at the new centre, five were recruited for their work with stem cells.

The Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research, the largest facility of its kind in Canada, officially opens today. The 30,000-square-foot, $17.4-million, state-of-the-art centre at the General campus of the Ottawa Hospital will usher in a new era of "regenerative" medicine.

"We had to stop recruiting because we didn't have any space until the new centre opened," said Mr. Worton, who was the driving force behind the new facility. "We crammed every researcher into every closet we could find."

Michael Rudnicki, director of the Sprott Centre, was the first to be recruited in 1999. He is part of a group of scientists that specialize in research including developing artificial corneas, studying how newts can regrow their limbs, or investigating the regeneration of the brain, eyes, pancreas and skin.

Mr. Rudnicki, who trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later taught at McMaster University in Hamilton, led a team that first identified the rare stem cells in adult muscle tissue that are responsible for regeneration.

"By bringing such scientists together, our hope is to create a fertile environment where new and exciting therapies can be developed," he said. "We want to be a focal point for this new knowledge and transform how health care is practised."

Stem cells have the potential to repair damaged organs and tissues in the body and treat a range of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, arthritis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and heart disease. Mr. Rudnicki said research conducted at the Sprott Centre can be applied to patients through clinical trials.

"My research career was motivated by joy of discovery, figuring out how things work. But, as I get older and now that I have a family, what is also important is making a difference and helping people," he said. "I recently had lunch with a former patient who received stem cell therapy. She went from being bedridden to having a normal life."

Miguel Andrade, who is originally from Spain, was recruited to work with the group in 2003. Mr. Andrade says he came to Canada for the unique opportunity to collaborate with some of the world's finest in stem cell research.

"By concentrating on a single problem, you get some kind of synergy," he said. "Everyone is thinking the same things and that focus helps a lot in imagining new solutions."

Mr. Andrade says he also chose Canada because he and his wife, whom he met in Germany, were looking for a good home for their young family with its mixed ethnicity.

"We were really looking for a society that was accepting of different people from different places," he said. "Canada was a place that was accepting to foreigners. Here, my wife and I don't feel like strangers."

While stem cell research brings the potential to heal, it is also a source of controversy.

Embryonic stem cell research is particularly controversial because experiments often require the destruction of a human embryo. Medical researchers argue that embryonic stem cells are more robust and potent, and that the embryos used for research are only those slated for destruction anyway. In 2004, after a lengthy debate, the Canadian government allowed stem cell researchers to use embryos left over after fertility treatments.

While the Sprott Centre isn't using embryonic stem cells in their labs right now, Mr. Rudnicki said it is a definite possibility in the future.

"This is a moral question and a moral obligation to extend a helping hand to those in need," he said. "Stem cell research will transform how medicine is practised and will make a difference in the quality of life of someone who would otherwise die."

The Sprott centre received $8.8 million in federal and provincial grants and $8.6 million in donations from the community through the Ottawa Hospital Foundation.

In July 2004, the facility was officially named the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research in honour of its principal donors, Eric and Vizma Sprott, who gave $7 million for an endowment fund, the largest individual donation ever made to the Ottawa Hospital.

Online: For mini-biographies on the Sprott Centre stem cell researchers, go to www.ottawacitizen.com.

Note: Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen.