Creating a Safe Home for Stem Cells

Stem cells offer great hope for those with brain or spinal cord injuries, but most cells die after implantation. How do we get around this issue?

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Despite all of our advances in modern medicine, there are still diseases we cannot cure and injuries we cannot repair. Most notably, damage to the tissue in our brain and spinal cord are particularly devastating. Although research shows that the brain is capable of creating new connections and reorganizing itself, there is currently no way to take advantage of its regenerative capacity. One possibility seems to be the use of stem cells which offer great promise in the area of tissue regeneration. The only problem is that most of stem cells die after implantation. Molly Shoichet, University Professor at the University of Toronto, is developing materials that keep these cells alive after they are introduced into the body and help them to integrate into the existing circuitry of the brain or spinal cord to cure stroke, spinal cord injury, and even blindness.

The Shoichet Lab created a water-soluble material, or hydrogel, originally intended as a drug delivery system for the spinal cord. What they did not anticipate was that this material would also help to promote the survival of stem cells and even promote wound healing. They are now looking at applications for cell delivery to the retina to promote vision repair.

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Professor Molly Shoichet holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto.  She has published over 480 papers, patents and abstracts and has given over 310 lectures worldwide. She currently leads a laboratory of 25 and has graduated 134 researchers. She founded two spin-off companies, is actively engaged in translational research and science outreach. Prof. Shoichet is the recipient of many prestigious distinctions and the only person to be a Fellow of Canada’s 3 National Academies: Canadian Academy of Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Academy of Engineering, and Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Prof. Shoichet holds the Order of Ontario, Ontario’s highest honour and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2013, her contributions to Canada’s innovation agenda and the advancement of knowledge were recognized with the QEII Diamond Jubilee Award. In 2014, she was given the University of Toronto’s highest distinction, University Professor, a distinction held by less than 2% of the faculty. Most recently, in 2015, Prof. Shoichet was given one of the five L’Oreal/UNESCO For Women In Science Awards recognizing her as one of the top women in science internationally. Prof. Shoichet received her SB from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1987) and her PhD from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in Polymer Science and Engineering (1992).


Allison Guy is a freelance science writer who is passionate about increasing scientific literacy and enhancing scientific discourse among the public. She holds a MSc in neuroscience from the University of Toronto and has been working as a drug development consultant for the pharmaceutical industry both domestically and abroad for the last 5 years. She is also a lecturer at Ryerson University in the Department of Chemistry and Biology and at the G. Raymond Chang School where she teaches pharmaceutical development and regulation.