Heart, cancer and diabetes projects among winners of increased funding for stem cell therapies

Dr. Sara Vasconcelos in the Toronto General Hospital lab on May 11.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

When Sara Vasconcelos talks about her job, it sounds like she’s in the restaurant business. But instead of repairing damaged buildings, the University Health Network researcher in Toronto wants to repair damaged hearts by using stem cells to rebuild cardiovascular tissue.

Today, Dr. Vasconcelos is taking a step closer to achieving that goal with a $3 million grant from the Stem Cell Network, a Canadian research funding agency. His effort is one of 32 projects across the country that have risen to the top of a competition for the largest federal funding outlay for regenerative medicine in 20 years.

On Thursday, the Ottawa-based network announced a total of $19.5 million in scholarships, which, along with matching funds from various partners, will translate into $42 million for research and clinical trials over the three coming years. The funding will support the work of more than 400 scientists, clinicians and trainees, the organization said.

“It’s a big step,” said Dr. Vasconcelos, who said she would use her award to based on preliminary results obtained on rats. She will then work with pig hearts, which offer a much closer analog to the human organ.

In doing so, she also hopes to overcome a hurdle that has stood in the way of those trying to repair hearts using cardiomyocytes – heart tissue cells derived from embryonic stem cells. The problem is that the replacement cells wither away if they are not nourished and kept alive by the blood vessels.

In her project, Dr. Vasconcelos aims to use a technique in which small sections of microscopic blood vessels are taken from human fat and implanted with the heart cells.

“The microvessels that look like Lego pieces,” she said. “You can put a whole bunch of them together with stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes and they’ll connect to each other and connect to host vessels that carry blood.”

With her grant secured, Dr Vasconcelos said she is assembling the team that will test the method in pig hearts later this year. Ultimately, her goal is to develop the technique into a therapy capable of restoring heart function in human patients after a heart attack, she said.

Among the other projects to obtain funding, some are already moving towards clinical studies. This includes a large study led by Guy Sauvageau, a hematologist at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital in Montreal, which involves developing modified blood stem cells to treat leukemia.

Working with a group of clinical sites in the United States, Dr. Sauvageau and his team have already successfully treated patients with relapsed leukemia. The new project will involve introducing genetically modified stem cells into people who are better able to resist cancer treatment and facilitate healing.

“Between 10,000 and 20,000 patients per year would benefit from this type of therapy,” Dr. Sauvageau said.

In the future, he added, the study could open the door to teaching the body to continually produce and replenish its own cancer-fighting immune cells rather than having those cells externally created and infused into a form of treatment known as CAR T-cell therapy.

In another of the funded projects, David Thompson of the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute will conduct clinical trials of one of the world’s first genetically engineered cell replacement therapies for type 1 diabetes.

Dr. Sara Vasconcelos shows an image of vascular tissue in the Toronto General Hospital lab where they are developing cell and tissue regeneration.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The diversity of projects highlights the growing importance of stem cells in multiple areas of health research, an area where Canada has had a long track record of success since University of Toronto researchers James Till and Ernest McCullough, established the existence of stem cells – cells that can differentiate into more specialized types – in the bone marrow in 1961.

Tania Bubela, dean of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, said the kind of funding provided by the Stem Cell Network helps bridge a critical gap between basic laboratory research and proven therapies for patients.

“What we’ve realized over time is that where you get public sector investment to fill the funding gap is exactly in that translation space from preclinical trials to early clinical trials,” said said Dr. Bubela. “Once you have proof that things are going to work and that they can be taken over by the healthcare system, that’s when venture capital starts to get interested.”

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