It’s not a common known fact, but the discovery of stem cells is as Canadian as Don Cherry complaining about hockey visors.

Dr. James Till and Ernest McCulloch made the groundbreaking find in 1961, when they stunned the science world with transplantable stem cells. Stem cell science in Canada, and around the world, was here.

But make no mistake – the stem cell scientists and researchers across the country carry tremendous pride, assuming the responsibility of an industry, and a significant piece of Canadian heritage.

This is why Canadian institutions regularly debate and discuss the ethics and legality of stem cell research in the country.

McGill University hosted a speaker series exploring the ethical and legal ramifications of stem cell research earlier this month here’s our summary of the stem cell summit.


Michel Tremblay, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at McGill, was the introductory speaker, detailing a brief history of stem cell science.

He noted the two main types of stem cells – embryonic and adult – as catalysts to treat a range of diseases including cancer, obesity, spinal cord injuries, and organ failures.

Embryonic stem cells have always been under ethical scrutiny, as ethicists debate whether these cells are ‘life’.

“The idea of [using] embryonic stem cells is good,’ Tremblay said. “However, it isn’t easy, and brings up a lot of ethical questions.”

Thankfully, Japanese Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka proved in 2006 that stem cell treatments could work with cells other than embryonic. He fused stem cells with tumor cells, making the former more potent. The gene expression would dominate the tumor cell, resulting in stem cell multiplication, to the point of full expression, wiping all traces of the tumor cells.


The speakers discussed advancements in stem cell research too, noting technology like CRISPR-Cas9 as revolutionary and industry-defining.

The genome editing tool has made headlines in the science sphere – it’s fast, cheap, and more accurate than previous iterations of DNA editing technology. It can remove, add, or alter sections of DNA sequences. The idea would be to edit damaged cells – ie. Cancer cells – into regular ones, thereby ‘deleting’ invading pathogens or viruses.

“Technology to mute certain gene expression will change the world,” Tremblay said.

But, the immense power and potential of the CRISPR-Cas9 has raised more questions than its answered. Almost immediately, concerns of ‘designer babies’ were the talk of an industry. Stem cell tourism was another growing issue, as unproven international clinics pushed shoddy therapies at great cost the patient, and great profit to the clinic.

What they all have in common are the questionable ethics of specific manipulation of genomes in human cells or in Layman’s terms, playing God and modifying humans into ‘better’ forms.

William Stanford, associate professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Ottawa and researcher at the Ottawa Research Institute, postulated the ethics of gene expression.

“The remarkable potential of stem cells to improve all spheres of biomedical research and treatment has spawn great competition due to lucrative potential of these technologies,” Stanford commented. He added the dire need for a legal framework to mediate applications and development again pointing to stem cell tourism, fake treatments, and non-clinically certified centers that have sullied the industry.


Some speakers at the summit weren’t researchers, doctors, or ethicists, but stem cell patients themselves.

William Brock, a guest speaker at the event, gave a powerful anecdotal speech on how stem cell transplants helped him overcome leukemia.

“Society shouldn’t have the right to decide if I should have a life-saving treatment,” Brock said. “Whatever ethics looks like in Ivory castles, [it] looks different when you’re the one dying. For you, it’s an ethical issue for someone else, it’s their life.”

Tremblay and Stanford did contend the subjective nature of experience altering his view, but the fact remains that despite the immense potential of stem cells, research and treatment must be held to ethical and legal accountability.

Over the summit, the speakers added more food-for-thought on the multi-faced topic of stem cell research. As we continue to debate and discuss in Canada, more questions will be raised, even as more problems are solved.

And while Canada has played an integral role in the history of stem cells, Stanford stressed Canada’s importance in the future.

After all, stem cells are a Canadian thing.

“If hockey is Canada’s sport, stem cell science is Canada’s research,” Stanford said.

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