One Day, Stem Cells May Help Them Move Again

Canada has long been a leader in the field of stem cell research, fueling the dream of renewed mobility for those with spinal cord injuries.


Regaining the ability to walk after being paralyzed by a spinal cord injury is a dream that many people think of as the quintessential medical miracle. For patients, even the smallest improvements to mobility are cause for celebration. However, unlike cuts and bruises to the skin, the spinal cord has limited capacity to heal on its own, often leaving injured patients with limited mobility and paralysis for life.

One research area poised to make a big impact in the treatment of spinal cord injury is stem cell therapy. If successful, stem cells could replace damaged nerve cells and restore partial function to paralyzed areas.

While stem cells show promising results in the lab, it’s impossible to know whether they will translate into useful medical treatments until they are tested in human patients in clinical trials, several of which are ongoing.

Dr. Michael Fehlings, Director of the Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto’s University Health Network, is leading a clinical trial that focuses on spinal cord injuries to the neck region, which is the most common site of injury. If stem cells can help heal a section even half a centimeter long, it could be enough to restore nerve connections to the hands.

The trial faces several hurdles, one of which is the potential for stem cells to transform into cancer cells. This means that besides monitoring patients for functional improvements, researchers will also be keeping a close eye on the transplanted stem cells over time to ensure safety.

Canada’s role in stem cell research

Canada is a pioneer in the field of stem cell research. In fact, stem cells were first discovered here in 1961 by Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch at the Ontario Cancer Institute.

More recently, Dr. Andras Nagy, Senior Investigator at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, also developed methods to take adult skin cells from patients and convert them into stem cells, an exciting discovery that overcomes the ethical debates surrounding embryonic stem cells, while also providing cells for transplantation that are a perfect donor match for the patient.

To help Canada keep pace with the world in the development of stem cell technologies, Dr. Janet Rossant, Executive Director of the Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine, is calling for increased funding.

In July 2015, Ottawa also pledged the $114 million to establish Medicine by Design, a stem cell research hub at the University of Toronto. A team effort led by Profs. Molly Shoichet and Peter Zandstra, this is the largest single grant in the university’s history.

In January 2016, the federal government pledged $20 million to the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine to help establish a stem cell therapy development facility in Toronto, with matching funding from GE Healthcare.

In Ontario, regulations are also being streamlined to help coordinate multiple qualified centres across the province for patient recruitment and care. Toronto, in particular, has a large pool of diverse patients to draw from. Combined with leading facilities and expertise, Ontario is positioned as a magnet for stem cell clinical trials.

Why is Ontario a hub for clinical trials in stem cell therapy?
Video courtesy of Clinical Trials Ontario

Want to learn even more about tissue engineering and regenerative medicine? Check out Prof. Molly Shoichet’s Orange Chair Interview on stem cells for stroke, and TED fellow Prof. Andrew Pelling’s work on growing human cells on scaffolds made of apples.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.