Right Turn: End of an era, almost

Author: Lisa Willemse, 03/27/15

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This is my final post as co-editor of Signals, and in sitting down to draft it, I found myself struggling to find words. How do you sum up six years of blogging? Quite simply, you don’t. However, as this also marks the end of the Stem Cell Network’s involvement with Signals, it was suggested to me by our scientific director, Michael Rudnicki, that perhaps I could share some of a more official “letter” I wrote that will serve as an intro to SCN’s final annual report.

A fine idea. I’ve made a few minor tweaks, but in essence, here is our Network take on the last of our 14 years of funding. I’ve also managed to find a few words of my own, appended at the bottom with a parting Right Turn video.

It would be easy to assume that an organization such as ours, in its final year (as of today, final DAYS) of primary funding, would choose to sit back and rest on its many achievements. The Stem Cell Network, however, has not operated with that mindset at any time over the past 14 years, and this certainly applies to the last one. Although certain parts of our mandate are now complete, namely the research and much of our outreach portfolios, the past year was one of significant impact and momentum that will carry forward into the years and decades ahead.

For example, Stem Cell Network researchers garnered a great deal of attention recently for their Network-funded work, including the following:

— The development of a novel drug and an innovative bioengineering platform that, when used in combination, stimulate as much as a tenfold expansion of blood stem cells in a single unit of donated umbilical cord blood;

— The discovery of a population of dermal stem cells that are key players in hair regeneration and overall skin health, which has exciting implications for the success of split-thickness skin grafts in patients with burns or other severe skin injuries, as well as people afflicted with hair loss; and

— The development of a subpopulation of glucose-sensitive, insulin secreting β-cells, that will allow researchers to better study both type I and type II diabetes in vitro and that bring us much closer to understanding how to make cells that could be used for cell therapy for these diseases.

Two new clinical trials came online in 2014 as well, thanks in large part to the dedication and talent of SCN researchers. The first will test the safety of the drug thioridazine as a treatment for acute myeloid leukemia and the second is a Phase 3 study of the drug metformin as a brain repair treatment for children who suffered neural damage as part of radiation therapy for brain cancer. These bring the total number of clinical trials active during the Network’s 14 years to 14; one for each year, which is far beyond what the Network’s founders had imagined in 2001 – back then, a single trial would have been considered a success. We know that many more clinical trials are yet to come as a result of our research investments.

Personally, I can be proud of SCN’s outreach efforts, which, in recent years, brought partners from Canada, the US and the UK together to realize the production of a science exhibit that will tour Canada, California and Europe through 2019. Inspired in part by the lack of grant funds dedicated to research communications (beyond journal publication) and the Banff Science Communications program, I created a public outreach grant program in 2011 that, in the past year, produced two art exhibits and five new videos in the award-winning StemCellShorts animation series. And of course, there is this blog, which I started 2009, and in a few days will be successfully transitioned to our sister network, the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine.

In its training portfolio, SCN continued to identify and respond to key priorities and needs within the field, supporting a comprehensive program of workshops, courses and opportunities for trainees in 2014 and culminating with the launch of a brand new workshop in the emerging field of “OMICS” in February 2015. With a successful application to the Networks of Centres of Excellence for management funds through 2017, it is in this critically important training portfolio that SCN will continue to have direct impact through the support of four additional workshops or courses, as well as support to allow the next generation of researchers to attend the Till and McCulloch Meetings in 2015.

Finally, it is with continued support of the Till and McCulloch Meetings that our research community will continue to access not just the best stem cell research Canada and the world has to offer, but to access each other as a means to strengthen the community, foster new research partnerships and share ideas that will bring unquantifiable benefits for many years to come.

As a sign off, I wish to simply thank our fantastic bloggers, who have each been an inspiration and a pleasure to work with, Stacey Johnson for her focus and enthusiasm — though I defer to the immortal words of Val Kilmer for true sentiment — and our readers for joining us over the years.

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Lisa Willemse

Lisa Willemse

Director of Communications at Stem Cell Network
Lisa is a science communicator with 15+ years' experience in the fields of regenerative medicine, language and literacy and high-speed networking/computing research. She launched this blog (first as the Stem Cell Network Blog) in 2009, and served as co-editor until April 2015. Among many other roles, she currently contributes to a number of blogs and publications, including the Canadian Science Publishing blog, Genome Alberta blog, Scientific American, and iPolitics. Follow her on Twitter @WillemseLA.
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