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April 07, 2009

Janet Rossant delivers Dame Anne McLaren Memorial lecture in Oxford

The opening line of her June 12, 2007 obituary in the London Times simply states, “Dame Anne McLaren was an exceptional scientist.”  The obituary goes on to document an extraordinary career that laid a foundation for much of today’s research into genetics, stem cells and reproductive biology. However it also describes a woman who recognized the societal impact of her research, and worked hard as a member of numerous commissions and committees to contribute to the development ethical guidelines under which these new fields of science could evolve with the confidence of the public.

It is particularly apposite that Dr. Janet Rossant, head of research at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and Deputy Scientific Director of the Stem Cell Network should yesterday deliver the 2nd annual lecture given in McLaren’s honour at the UK’s National Stem Cell Network meeting in Oxford. Not only is Janet recognized as one of the world’s leading stem cell biologists, Janet has been intimately involved in the development of the ethical guidelines that govern stem cell research in Canada and abroad, first as chair of the CIHR working group that promulgated the first CIHR Guidelines for human pluripotent stem cell research, and subsequently as a member of a committee of the National Academy of Sciences in the US. Janet continues this critical role within the Stem Cell Network as co-chair of the SCN’s Policy Development Committee.

Janet’s talk yesterday focused on the different conditions and triggers by which pluripotent cells (in this case from the mouse) will turn into either embryonic stem cells (ES Cells) or trophoblast cells (TS Cells) (the first cells to differentiate in the fertilized egg that provide nutrients to the embryo and go on to form the placenta). Janet ably demonstrated that there is much to be learned about how stem cells develop from the study of TS Cells, while equally there is much to be learned about TS cells (and by extension many early developmental cues that may impact pregnancy) from the study of ES cells. Indeed this is a wider theme to which the vast majority of stem cell scientists subscribe. So much of what we have learned about stem cells has been from the comparison of different cell types. Limiting studies solely to one type (e.g. adult or cord blood) would in fact slow rather than accelerate research in those areas.

Research owes a great debt of gratitude to scientists such as Dame Anne McLaren and Dr. Janet Rossant, who think deeply about the wider societal implications of their work, and willingly invest time with the public and with policymakers to ensure appropriate research guidelines are put in place.

-- Drew Lyall, SCN Executive Director, from Oxford, UK

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