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November 03, 2010

Stem cells back on Parliament's agenda

Yesterday, for the first time in seven years, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health heard testimony on the current status of stem cell research in Canada. Although the topics covered by MPs during the Committee hearings did not seem to reflect any immediate legislative priorities, nevertheless it was a welcome opportunity for the stem cell community to provide input to Parliament. Three members of the Stem Cell Network gave testimony during the proceedings:

Dr. Michael Rudnicki, Scientific Director of the Stem Cell Network, talked to the recent advances in science, noting in particular the profound impact of the discovery of iPS cells, the increasing use of stem cells to screen for new or safer drugs, and the clinical trials anticipated over the next five years. A full copy of his remarks can be downloaded in both French and English.

Drew Lyall, Executive Director of the Stem Cell Network, and Board Chair of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, spoke next about the opportunity stem cell research represents for Canada to improve patient lives, reduce the economic burden of health care, and create new jobs. However, he also warned that Canada risks losing its leadership in this field without further substantial investment from the federal government. A full copy of his remarks are available in French and English.

Finally Dr. Janet Rossant, Chief of Research at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, and Deputy Director of the Stem Cell Network spoke about some of the regulatory challenges to the research environment, in particular the overlapping mandates of the Assisted Human Reproduction Agency of Canada, CIHR’s Stem Cell Oversight Committee, and the Tri-Council Policy Statement on research ethics. Dr. Rossant also spoke to the ongoing uncertainty caused by the absence of a decision from the Supreme Court of Canada on the constitutionality of the Act with respect to assisted human reproduction. A full copy of her remarks can be found here.

Testimony was also given by Cancer Care Manitoba, in particular by Dr. Dhali Dhaliwal, President & CEO, and Dr. Donna Wall, a physician in pediatric hematology/oncology.

Beyond issues relating to research advances, the funding environment, and regulation, a number of other topics were touched upon in some depth:

  • Potential opportunities to increase participation, particularly amongst minority groups, in OneMatch the Canadian bone marrow transplant donor registry managed by Canadian Blood Services. It is an area in which Joy Smith, Chair of the Committee has taken a particular interest.
  • The need to establish a Canadian public cord blood bank, and the challenges in securing funding from the Provinces and Territories to do so, despite unanimity amongst them that it needs to be done.
  • The risks face by Canadian patients seeking therapies from clinics outside of the country, offering therapies for which there is little scientific evidence. This issue of “stem cell tourism” is one we have discussed before.
  • Members also enquired about the Stem Cell Charter, a call to action for scientists patients and the public prepared by the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, asking signatories to voice their support for stem cell research. To date over 4,000 people have signed the Charter. 

While everyone recognizes the ongoing constraints imposed by the current fiscal environment, more can still be done to support stem cell research, and to advance therapies to the clinic more rapidly. Stem cells are back on Parliament’s agenda, so if you feel strongly write to your MP, or directly to one of the Members of the Standing Committee.



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Following the November 2 presentation to the Standing Committee on Health, we received the following:

Pursuant to S.O. 108(2), the Committee adopted the following motions on Tuesday, November 23, 2010:

1) That the Committee recommend that the federal government work with the provinces and territories to determine how best to provide Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec with the funding required to establish a public cord blood bank;

2) That the Committee recommend that Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec be encouraged to pursue all possible means to ensure wider participation in OneMatch registry, including partnership with federal and provincial governments and with the charitable sector;

3) That the Committee recommend that Health Canada review its guidance for clinical trials, relating to cellular therapy, to ensure that Canadians will be able to access stem cell therapies in a safe and timely manner;

4) That the Committee recommend that Health Canada work closely with its international counterparts to ensure that Canadians make informed decisions about the safety and efficacy of stem cell treatments not offered either in this country or in others where there is strong regulatory oversight;

5) That the Committee recommend that the federal government increase support for the entire continuum of stem cell research, from basic science to funding for cell manufacturing, and early phase clinical trials to ensure Canada remains globally competitive.

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