It’s been almost 20 years since Dr. Sam Weiss, professor and researcher at the University of Calgary, made the stunning confirmation of the existence of stem cells tucked between the jelly-like bumps of adult brain matter.
Since then, the world has taken the concept of “patient heal thyself” to a whole new level with a new field of health care dubbed “regenerative medicine.”
Weiss, who is now head of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at U of C, says back then, he had no clue how his team’s finding would impact the world. He was simply trying to figure out how to cure brain and spinal cord injuries by promoting healthy cells to grow, ultimately replacing or repairing affected areas.
Nearly two decades later, advances in this arm of research has expanded to a frantic level, but still no firm proof that the theory actually works on humans. Weiss is ever the optimist, despite the long haul to creating real-life stem cell solutions.
“I think that the interesting thing about stem cells is that they still have tremendous potential,” he says. “Thanks to additional research across the globe, there are more avenues we haven’t conceived yet.”
The existence and importance of stem cells has been a scientific, political, and moral hot potato in medical circles for a century. Science has confirmed they are found in all animals and humans, and they help develop and create an entire body (embryonic), or replenish various areas of the body such as in the brain and spinal cord (progenitor), but only in the space where they are found.
The recent ethical debate of using aborted fetal stem cells to regrow amputated limbs and reproduce organs has been somewhat relieved since research has now found ways to capture, isolate and grow cells taken from a patient’s body, and place them back in the area to help kick-start healing. Researchers are using various types of stem cells to find treatments for a multitude of conditions, such as strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease and cancer.
For his own part, Weiss has expanded his curiosity to researching the effects of certain drugs on stem cells, and how they can relieve multiple sclerosis symptoms. He noticed female patients reported fewer symptoms of the condition during pregnancy. He conducted animal research that confirmed a certain drug helped increase progesterone levels, which stimulate stem cell growth around the animals’ nerve endings. This subdues the onslaught of attacks.
Weiss says while stem cells may be considered a possible miracle cure for disease or injury, theories are being tested to determine if these cells might actually trigger illness or if they can be reprogrammed to produce healthier versions of themselves. In this case, the goal may be to target, stop, eliminate or alter, instead of find, stimulate and grow.
“The current thinking is that a whole host of cancers may arise from stem cells gone bad,” he says. “It looks like a close relative of the stem cells we discovered may be at the root of a number of adult brain cancers.”
Alan Moore, president and CEO of Stem Cell Therapeutics, a publicly traded Biotechnology company in Calgary, has taken Weiss’ ideas and put them into action.
“We’ve taken a slightly different approach than using stem cells directly for treatment options,” he says. “We are actually using drugs that stimulate stem cells that exist in the body, adding them to proliferate. That opens the door to lots of possibilities.”
The company is participating in a cross-country trial with Dr. Michael Hill from the stroke unit at Foothills Medical Centre. At 15 sites, 120 stroke patients are receiving three doses of two drugs (one that promotes multiplication of tissues, the other to create more red blood cells) to see if they make a difference in triggering stem cells to repairing the holes in the brain after a stroke. So far the results are promising.
“We’ve selected a broad range of patients and some are quite sick,” he says. “The clinical testing seems to work. After 90 days, we take an MRI of the holes in the brain due to the stroke, and we’re finding the size of the hole is reduced for most participants.”
Michael Rudnicki, scientific director of Canada’s Stem Cell Network in Ottawa, says Canada is at the forefront of stem cell advancements, ranked second in the world for performance per capita. He says when the group formed nearly eight years ago, they were hard-pressed to imagine clinical trials.
“Today, we’re supporting in various ways several trials and there’s more coming down the pipe,” he says. “It’s gratifying and much faster than we anticipated.”
With their polite culture, Rudnicki says Canadian researchers have a stellar reputation for working well with others.
“We’re part of numerous international multidisciplinary teams, co-operate, share, and collaborate,” he adds. “Stem cell research is not a single event in one place or one disease. There are so many areas being investigated that stem cell research will contribute.”
Despite the breakthroughs, Weiss says we’re not ready to put stem cells stimulators or retardants on the drugstore shelf just yet. In fact, it may take another one or two generations to get it right.
“If you asked me have we achieved as much as we hoped, the answer is no,” he says. “More and more clinical trials have started in multiple areas of regenerative medicine using stem cells. These are not overnighters, they take time. We’ll have to see happens.”
Donna Gray, For Neighbours