Coalition pushes federal government for $500-million investment in stem cell cures

Debbie Lawes
March 4, 2016

By Debbie Lawes

Is half a billion dollars too big a budget ask to cure chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's that account for the bulk of Canada's health care costs? It's a tantalizing prospect for a strained healthcare system, and one a private-sector led coalition suggests is within reach if the Trudeau government, health charities and industry join forces in an unprecedented $1.5-billion national effort to exploit Canada's strengths in stem cell science, cellular therapies and regenerative medicine. Canada currently ranks among the top three countries globally in stem cell R&D.

"We're not looking at treating symptoms, we're talking about curing disease," says James Price, president/CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, which represents scientists, clinicians, health charities, industry leaders, philanthropists and investors.

The coalition's February 9 pre-Budget submission to the House finance committee calls on Ottawa to invest $250 million in 2016, followed by another $250 million five years later to finance what it describes as "a shovel-ready innovation-based plan for health, health care and economic growth."

"We're optimistic. We've had some good receptions with this government, both at the political and bureaucratic levels," says Price. "Our proposal is strongly aligned with what we're hearing in terms of the government's proposed innovation agenda looking at investments that target key growth sectors for Canada that have the ability to attract investment, grow competitive export-oriented companies and diversify the economy."

Federal investment would be matched by $500 million from health charities such as the Heart & Stroke Foundation and the Alzheimer's Society of Canada, and more than $500 million from the private sector.

"What we were hearing from the investment community, philanthropists or health charities," says Price, "is that their investments are sprinkled all across the board so how can we align them to get the most leverage and fund the most promising initiatives?

The lion's share of private funds would come from Canada's largest biotech company, STEMCELL Technologies Inc. The Vancouver-based firm, which sells stem cell-related tools and technologies to academic and industry customers in more than 70 countries, plans to spend $350 million to $500 million in R&D, increase its workforce from 800 to over 3,000, and boost revenues from $120 million to $625 million — all over the next 10 years.

Medicines of Tomorrow

Innovation Fund Portfolio

  • Capital Mobilization & Commercialization Fund to mobilize private capital and create companies that commercialize world-class products, therapeutics and technologies
  • Clinical Advancement & Technology Development Fund to fund and attract leading-edge clinical trials and technology development
  • Multidisciplinary R&D Fund to move research into Phase 1 clinical trials or marketable technologies

"If you want faster results (from stem cell research) you need a coordinated approach across Canada and that requires money," says Dr Allen Eaves, STEMCELL's president and CEO. "What's the payback for government? Better treatment for diseases like diabetes or Parkinson's, reduced health care costs for provinces and new made-in-Canada technologies developed for our health system that can then be sold around the world. Our company is the standard bearer for that kind of approach."

Two-thirds of Canada's $200-billion annual health care bills currently goes to treating chronic conditions that will become more common and costly with an aging population. Diabetes alone consumes 3.5% of provincial health care budgets and the costs are expected to surpass $16 billion by 2020.

"So being able to pull even one or two major diseases out of the equation is going to have a transformative effect on the healthcare system more than electronic health records or shared procurement," says Price.

The budget ask is a key plank in the Foundation's Canadian Stem Cell Strategy, which calls for a pan-Canadian approach to align and integrate the efforts of researchers, clinicians, industry, philanthropists and health charities. With federal funding, the group believes Canada can deliver 10 new curative therapies within 10 years, transform health care and ease the strain on the health system, attract private investment and generate 12,000 new jobs.

The new money would be used to establish the Till & McCulloch Medicines of Tomorrow Innovation Fund which would invest in an integrated portfolio that includes: the Capital Mobilization and Commercialization Fund; the Clinical Advancement and Technology Development Fund; and the Multidisciplinary R&D Fund.

"One advantage to the fund approach is we have great infrastructure in Canada," says Price. "The Stem Cell Network (SCN) over the past decade has built a strong community of researchers that can come together in multidisciplinary teams and put together strong proposals to move research forward. CCRM (Centre for the Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine) is working on creating companies for cell therapy and CellCAN (Regenerative Medicine and Cell Therapy Network) is looking at spurring more clinical trials."

Stem Cell Network renewal?

The federal government recently invested $20 million for a cell manufacturing facility in Toronto and $114 million for the Univ of Toronto's Medicine by Design program. But SCN says more is needed to compensate for the loss of its national network in 2017 when its funding from the Networks of Centres of Excellence comes to an end.

As a result, "researchers are now struggling to find grants on an individual basis, and many laboratories are considering staff cuts or have begun to downsize," SCN states in its brief to the finance committee.

The network is asking for a five-year renewal and $50 million in new funding — something that would be unprecedented in the NCE program. No network or centre has ever been extended beyond the government's prescribed term limits.

SCN says it would use the money to fund large-scale multi-disciplinary translational research ($22.5 million), Phase 1 clinical trials ($15 million) and, workshops, co-op placements and international exchanges ($5 million).

According to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Ottawa has invested about $750 million in stem cell research since 2001. In comparison, California and Japan have committed $3 billion and $1 billion respectively for stem cell research.


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