Michael May is President and CEO of CCRM, a leader in developing and commercializing regenerative medicine, cell and gene therapy technologies, Michael Rudnicki is Scientific Director and CEO of Stem Cell Network, with a mandate to translate stem cell research into clinical applications, commercial products and public policy, and Peter Zandstra is a professor in the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering and Executive Director of Medicine by Design at the University of Toronto.
Canadians cheered when our athletes took home 22 medals from the recent Rio Olympics, four more than in 2012.
But our country’s tremendous success on the podium did not happen by accident. Over the past decade our governments and sports bodies have invested strategically to reach the podium. Canada has recognized that if we want to compete with the best athletes in the world, we need to back our aspirations financially.
Canada has a similar opportunity in regenerative medicine, which promises to revolutionize health care using stem cells. By creating a seamless pipeline that will take our research discoveries to market, we can establish our country as a global powerhouse in this burgeoning field.
We have the raw materials: many of our researchers are recognized world-wide as experts in their fields, and the international community already looks to us for top talent and new ideas.
To compete with other countries and to be a leader in international efforts to cure devastating diseases, we need to mobilize our regenerative medicine expertise from the “eureka moment” to creating a marketable product. This means building leading companies and developing advanced manufacturing capabilities to deliver these Canadian-made products around the world.
Fostering such a made-in-Canada innovation cluster that will allow us to become a true global player in regenerative medicine will take both strategic planning and investment. The federal government’s open consultations on its innovation agenda offer a rare opportunity to jumpstart this conversation.
The potential of regenerative medicine is astounding. Researchers are harnessing stem cells to repair, replace or regenerate human cells, tissues and organs with the aim of improving treatments for conditions ranging from diabetes to blindness to heart failure and cancer.
Ten years ago this August, Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka published a paper demonstrating that adult cells can be programmed backwards to reendow them with the ability to become any type of cell in the body. This discovery ushered in a new era in regenerative medicine and sparked a global race to bring new therapies to market.
Canada already has an advantage. James Till and Ernest McCulloch of Toronto, were the first to identify the existence of transplantable stem cells in the early 1960s. Since then, we have developed a critical mass of outstanding scientists, engineers, doctors and mathematicians who are collaborating across disciplines to accelerate innovation. We have the backing of the provincial and federal governments, and growing partnerships with industry. And we are generating discoveries that are redefining the field.
But it will take more than research expertise and initial investment to move these breakthroughs from the lab to the marketplace and grow our economy. We must continue to build a Canadian innovation cluster that will attract talent and business expertise or we will lose our intellectual property to companies based in Boston, San Francisco, or Cambridge, U.K. — places with established business communities interested in investing in, and growing, their biotechnology sectors.
These established clusters weren’t born overnight; they have become successful because they integrate research discovery, commercialization and industry with both public and private investment.
That’s what we’re working toward.
Groups like Stem Cell Network, CCRM, Medicine by Design at the University of Toronto, the and the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, in close partnership with Canadian industry (e.g., Vancouver’s STEMCELL Technologies) and organizations from across the country (e.g. ThéCell and CellCAN in Quebec) have created a specialized, collaborative, capital-efficient ecosystem to drive discovery through to commercialization.
It is now time to put a stake in the ground along the full value creation chain: R&D, clinical trials, manufacturing and patient treatment. Royalties from licensing represent such a small fraction of the total value available to us. Our legacy could be the improvements in Canadian quality of life, the jobs created and taxes paid, and the reinvestment that such an innovation cluster will catalyze.
There are three ways to make this happen. First, we must make Canada the headquarters for investing in regenerative medicine, so that we can directly benefit from the outputs of our cluster. Governments and the private sector must be the domestic leads of sector-focused venture capital funds and create tailored incentives to attract risk capital to our biotechnology industry, much like those that enabled viable film and natural resource industries in Canada.
Next, we must help ourselves first. For example, Ontario’s single-payer health-care system is one of the largest buyers of medical products in all of North America. If Ontario became the first customer for the medical products and therapies designed and tested here, both patients and the economy would gain tremendously.
Third, we must leverage our reputation outside of Canada to “franchise” our cluster and scale for sustainability. Canadian leadership of such a “supercluster” will consolidate intellectual property and expertise across the globe, attract major foreign investment into our cluster and link our emerging companies to the global markets they will need to be successful.
The payoffs will be enormous. By owning the entire regenerative medicine value chain, from discovery to manufacturing to global distribution, Canada will attract new talent, secure investment and build sustainable companies. It will become a leading player in a global industry that is expected to grow in value to tens of billions of dollars over the next five years, and isn’t subject to the market cycles that affect many other Canadian clusters.
Regenerative medicine is our science. Now it’s time to own the business, too, so we can lead the world, just like Canada’s athletes in Rio.