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February 11, 2011

If you build it, they will come: money + resources = interdisciplinary teams

by David Kent

One of the most striking observations I have made since I began my stem cell training involves the hugely positive effects of substantial resources on the field of stem cell biology. Building on the momentum of two stunning advances in developmental biology in the late 1990s (cloning Dolly the sheep and creating of human embryonic stem cell lines), government, industry, media and the public have consistently provided support for the hope and promise of stem cell biology. Because such vast quantities of money were invested, the field progressed more rapidly and with greater diversity than what could have been accomplished by simply funding stem cell biologists. Indeed, this investment has launched a decade of intensive training and cross-fertilization that has been at the leading edge of inter-disciplinary research.

Major organizations were formed (e.g.: the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, the Cambridge Centre for Stem Cell Research, the Australian Stem Cell Centre), large collaborative networks were born (e.g.: the Canadian and UK Stem Cell Networks), and huge numbers of university degree programs were created. Most importantly, however, is what these efforts created in their wake -– they brought people and ideas together.

The stem cell field today is a buzzing arena of chemical and biomedical engineers, physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists thinking about things like bioreactors for cell expansion and growth, micro-scale cultures to analyze thousands of conditions simultaneously, and the whether or not stem cell fate decisions are random. Funnily enough, this is exactly how the stem cell field first got started as Jim Till merged his biophysics expertise with Ernest McCulloch’s hematology expertise. In my own short time in this field, I have had collaborations with multiple groups from many diverse fields outside of biology. Furthermore, stem cell biology has benefited from a huge influx of specialists within its own field, including those with expertise in microRNAs, DNA repair, biochemistry, and genetics. Finally, the field has also attracted, and supported, world-class researchers from the social sciences (e.g.: ethics, law) that have put their brains to work on engaging the societal implications of stem cells and issues such as intellectual property.

The momentum is great, but one worry I do have as a junior researcher who has almost exclusively been involved in stem cell projects is what the future holds for the hundreds of stem cell trainees in Canada (and the thousands internationally) -- are we akin to the masses of electronic engineers of the 1990s, and will we too have trouble finding jobs that align with our specialized expertise? Or perhaps, a stem cell trainee’s broad experience and exposure to the multiple fields will be beneficial and make them more attractive to employers of all types -– only time will tell. The strategies that we use to allocate resources (i.e.: who and what activity we fund) are key to getting this right and Paul Krzyzanowski’s recent post on funding international trainees vs. Canadian trainees details the type of policy decision that can have major impacts on the returns that Canada gets as a nation -– though I don’t completely agree with Paul’s conclusion that we should pull the plug on funding bright young international researchers to come to Canada, but that will take a much longer discussion to sort out.

Overall, the last decade of stem cell research has had huge impact above and beyond the scientific research. It clearly demonstrates that extensive monies and resources will attract new researchers, new ideas, and new investment to a given field. Also, it has shown that the gap between the increasingly specialized fields of research is not so large that it cannot be overcome to benefit researchers from multiple disciplines. Furthermore, the concept of stem cells and possibilities of stem cell therapy have been very well ingrained in the minds of the general public (including mobilization of many celebrities to support stem cell research). This public knowledge and support has subsequently increased the drive to translating some of the basic science discoveries (perhaps much faster than a community of strictly biologists would have done) into real therapies and we will watch very closely the recent stem cell therapy trials from Geron and ReNeuron.

Stem cell research has created an enormous amount of human capital that, if managed and supported carefully, could well result in medical and biological advances that are so tantalizing that they could easily justify current, and increased, investment levels. However, if not properly managed, the endeavour may well be an astounding waste of resources (waves of underemployed trainees, artificial interdisciplinary collaborations, or lack of funding for other pressing areas of science that aren’t advertised as well). It will be up to leaders in the field and supporters of stem cell research to continue the strong momentum in efforts to engage and inspire current and future researchers to think beyond their lab science as the field continues to grow. 



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