Reflections on the Stem Cell Network Part 2: Building a broad talent base

Author: David Kent, 02/09/15

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This article is the second in a series about the human capital created by the Network of Centre of Excellence known as the Stem Cell Network (SCN), which was created in 2001, will wind down the majority of it’s activities this year. The first article focused on the trainees turned academic group leader, but this is certainly not the only type of job that graduate training in stem cell biology equips you for and I would like to make the case that this particular NCE has primed the Canadian biomedical community for building an excellent resource in regenerative medicine and cell therapy. Before launching into why I think the regenerative medicine industry has such a strong potential in Canada, I think that it is important to spend some time on the myriad of careers that will benefit from having highly trained scientists in their ranks.

First, we now live in an age where full genomes are being sequenced very cheaply and there is an incredible amount of knowledge (and interpretation of that knowledge) that needs to make its way into the medical community (doctors, genetic counselors), the legal community (patent protection, ethical implications of sequencing data), and the political community (which technologies to support/permit, which areas to devote public resources). As an example – the company 23andME sells a genetics service that offers to sequence people’s DNA and provide information about all sorts of things – they’ve already gotten in some trouble for over-stepping their bounds, and they will not be the only company to seek to exploit genomic technologies to make some money and expose society to a flurry of “how should we handle this kind of information?” and “do we even want it out there?”. More people with strong scientific backgrounds working as lawyers, politicians, journalists, administrators and business folk should help keep such companies in check.

Second, numerous areas of society stand to benefit from the quantitative critical thinking skills acquired throughout graduate training. SCN trainees in particular have been a part of a large group of highly collaborative projects with scientists across the country – their networks are vast and their skill sets are varied. So many professions could reap the rewards of such talent but the amazing part is that most of the scientists have not considered how to apply their skills in the so-called real world. More critical thinking in areas like politics, education, and the civil service – that would be my dream. But to achieve it, we need excellent science-trained brains to actively leave academic science for non-research careers. However, we also need people to stay in research that isn’t academic research – companies, government agencies, and even local charities and non-governmental organizations… they all need quantitative and critical thinkers to push them to the next level.

Admittedly, these first two points have had much ink spilled on them on my other blog at University Affairs and other spaces on the web. However, something that I think Canada has failed to think more about as a national community is what they are better positioned to do than the vast majority of countries – to capitalize on building a positive capital infrastructure for regenerative medicine and cellular therapy. Currently, outfits for cell therapies exist across the world, offering “bona fide” and “clinical trial” treatments and it is extremely difficult to determine what’s legitimate and what’s not (I always refer people to the ISSCR’s A Closer Look at Stem Cells. For example, I look at the number of poorly designed clinical trials and see a huge need for people to actively choose to dedicate their brains to the process of determining whether or not drugs/treatments actually work. Canada boasts some of the best trained scientific talent – why not push a portion of them to dedicate their skill set to a national clinical trials structure for cell therapies?

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Canada has uniquely invested in stem cell bioengineering applications at the academic level. Some of the devices and tools coming out of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal labs in recent years has been impressive (e.g., the CyTOF machine that has revolutionized cytometry) – blending this technology with stem cell expertise has already been successfully facilitated by SCN (e.g. see my article on collaboration between bioengineers and scientists) and the groundwork is laid for pushing all sorts of advances in molecular scaffolds, bioreactors, and delivery of new therapies. Of course, this would require massive organization and political effort to achieve, but SCN has already created the people to drive the research and application development and it would be foolish to let this window of opportunity close.

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David Kent

David Kent

Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Cambridge
Dr. David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute (http://www.stemcells.cam.ac.uk/researchers/principal-investigators/dr-david-kent). His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009. He has been writing for Signals since 2010.
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