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Stem cell research venture a big boost to Canada’s biotech industry

Even though it has been touted as one of the most potentially beneficial areas of scientific research, the study of stem cells continues to raise controversy. An experiment announced in India earlier this year, which would have used stem cells to attempt to regenerate brain cells in brain dead patients, was described in the press as “Frankenstein-esque” and was cancelled after the researchers failed to get permission from patients’ family members to perform the trials.

In France this week, the parents of an unborn baby became the first to win the right to harvest stem cells from its umbilical cord when it is born, and to preserve the cells in a private blood bank in case they are needed later in the child’s life. A French scientist commented that such a use of stem cells raised ethical questions, and could even lead to crime. “What happens,” she wondered, “if years down the line, the company looking after the blood cells decides to hold them hostage and will only release them for a huge sum?”

US President George W Bush famously banned stem cell research in 2001 because at the time it required the use of laboratory-grown human embryos. The ban was overturned by Barack Obama in 2009. Today, adult stem cells can be harvested from the person who is going to receive them in various therapies. Research and clinical trials have shown that stem cell therapy can be effective in a variety of illnesses, including macular degeneration, leukemia, Parkinson’s Disease and many more. However, stem cell therapies are not yet approved by the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA).

It is very big news, therefore, that the German pharmaceuticals giant Bayer and bio-tech venture capital firm Versant Ventures are putting up $225 million to start a new stem cell research company based in Toronto. It is the second-largest biotech investment ever made by Bayer and one of the largest ever in Canada. The new company is called BlueRock Therapeutics, and it will be located in the MaRS Discovery District.

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MaRS Discovery District in Toronto

BlueRock will develop a cardiovascular disease program in partnership with the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine and the University Health Network in Toronto. The aim is to develop stem cell-derived treatments that will regenerate heart muscle in heart attack and heart failure patients. Groundbreaking work in this area has been done by the McEwen Centre’s director, Dr. Gordon Keller, whose research is said to be the main reason that Bayer chose Toronto.

We have closely tracked the field of regenerative medicine for the past five years and believe the time is right to invest in stem cell therapies given recent breakthroughs in cell differentiation, manufacturing and engineering. We are delighted to team up once again with Bayer and to be partnering with such a distinguished group of founders and institutes.

In a statement, Bayer said it was launching the company to develop “transformative and curative therapies” using the latest breakthrough technologies. The Bayer investment will make it possible to commercialize the research, something the Toronto researchers have not yet been able to do. BlueRock will also have research and development operations in New York and Boston.

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Toronto researches Till and McCulloch discovered the pluripotent nature of stem cells, the ability to develop into all the organs and parts of the body.

Toronto has a long and important involvement in the stem cell story, going back to 1963. That year, two researchers, Dr. James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch, published a paper about their discovery that stem cells could be transplanted from a mouse donor into a mouse that had been heavily irradiated, with observable therapeutic results. They did not “discover” stem cells, as is sometimes said, but they were the first to discover the “pluripotent” function of the cells, meaning that stem cells are undifferentiated and can develop into any organ or part of the body. Their work sent stem cell research in an entirely new direction.

The managing director of Versant Ventures, Dr. Jerel Davis, said that his firm had closely tracked the field of regenerative medicine for the past five years and was sure that “the time is right” to invest in stem cell therapies.

A statement from the office of the premier does not mention how many jobs will be created at the new venture, though it has been reported elsewhere that there will be about fifty new positions. The premier’s statement says that ventures supported by MaRS have raised, to date, $2.6 billion and generated $1.3 billion in revenue.

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