How does a stem cell know what to be when it grows up?

Dr. Marjorie Brand, The Ottawa Hospital’s Chrétien Researcher of the Year, cracks the code

October 22, 2019

“You can inject as many stem cells as you want into a patient, but it’s not going to help unless they become the kind of cells you want,” said Dr. Brand. “Understanding what drives a stem cell towards a certain fate is one of the keys to successful stem cell therapy.”Dr. Marjorie Brand has been hooked on research ever since her training as a biochemistry student in France, where she discovered a new set of proteins that can turn genes on in the cell. This early success motivated the senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa to continue in a career making game-changing discoveries in the fields of stem cell research, blood cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

“The excitement of getting the results makes you forget all of the challenges you faced to get to that moment,” said Dr. Brand. “I never really asked myself what I wanted as a career. Once I started doing research, I knew I wanted to keep doing more.”

Dr. Brand is fascinated by the building blocks of cells. Over time, she realized that her skills could be used to investigate leukemia and other blood diseases at a molecular level. This in-depth knowledge could then be used by researchers and clinicians to develop new treatments.

As a postdoctoral fellow, she first learned about stem cells from a colleague in the United States who was using bone marrow transplants to treat people with sickle cell anemia. Bone marrow contains blood stem cells that become all the different cells in the blood. Dr. Brand became interested in how this transformation happens.

This interest led her to join the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research at The Ottawa Hospital in 2004, one of the top stem cell research centres in Canada.

Stem cells hold the potential to treat a variety of diseases. To realize this potential, doctors need to be able to control what kind of cells they will become once they’re inside the body.

“You can inject as many stem cells as you want into a patient, but it’s not going to help unless they become the kind of cells you want,” said Dr. Brand. “Understanding what drives a stem cell towards a certain fate is one of the keys to successful stem cell therapy.”

In a breakthrough paper published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, Dr. Brand and her team showed for the first time how proteins called transcription factors decide the fate of blood stem cells. Transcription factors make sure cells do the right thing at the right time, based on cues from the environment.

The team found that blood stem cells contain equal amounts of two competing transcription factors: one that pushes them to become a red blood cell, and one that pushes them to become a clot-forming platelet. Shifting the balance between these transcription factors determines which kind of cell it will become.

“Very early on, stem cells have a preference for what kind of cell they will become,” said Dr. Brand. “But we can put things in their environment that force them to become something else. This has major applications for creating more of the specific blood cell types that will benefit patients.”

The impressive study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, a prestigious U.S. federal organization that rarely funds Canadian research. 

When she’s not in the lab or discussing ideas with her colleagues, Dr. Brand loves hiking in Gatineau Park with her husband Dr. Jeffrey Dilworth, another stem cell researcher at The Ottawa Hospital, and their dog.

“My work is about understanding the underlying mechanism of a disease,” said Dr. Brand.  “Knowing this mechanism of a disease is key to developing effective therapies.”

Dr. Brand will receive The Ottawa Hospital’s Chrétien Researcher of the Year Award on October 26, 2019.

Dr. Brand’s research is possible because of generous donations to The Ottawa Hospital Foundation. Her lab is also supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Cancer Research Society.

The Ottawa Hospital: Inspired by research. Driven by compassion 

The Ottawa Hospital is one of Canada’s largest learning and research hospitals with over 1,100 beds, approximately 12,000 staff and an annual budget of over $1.2 billion. Our focus on research and learning helps us develop new and innovative ways to treat patients and improve care. As a multi-campus hospital, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, we deliver specialized care to the Eastern Ontario region, but our techniques and research discoveries are adopted around the world. We engage the community at all levels to support our vision for better patient care. See for more information about research at The Ottawa Hospital.

University of Ottawa: —A crossroads of cultures and ideas

The University of Ottawa is home to over 50,000 students, faculty and staff, who live, work and study in both French and English. Our campus is a crossroads of cultures and ideas, where bold minds come together to inspire game-changing ideas. We are one of Canada’s top 10 research universities—our professors and researchers explore new approaches to today’s challenges. One of a handful of Canadian universities ranked among the top 200 in the world, we attract exceptional thinkers and welcome diverse perspectives from across the globe.

Media Contact

Amelia Buchanan
Senior Communication Specialist
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
Office: 613-798-5555 x 73687
Cell: 613-297-8315


Disease and research area tags: Molecular and cellular biology, Stem cells

Scientific Program tags: Regenerative Medicine Program