Wednesday, April 4, 2012

James Till on the history and future of stem cells

Last week the Canadian magazine Macleans ran a Q&A with James Till, who, along with Ernest McCulloch, discovered stem cells almost 50 years ago. Together they won the prestigious Lasker Award in 2005 for their discovery, which was initially published in a 1963 Nature paper.

The pair identified the stem cells in bone marrow that produce all the cells of the blood – immune cells, red blood cells and platelets. These are the cells that rebuild the blood system in people who get a bone marrow transplant. They are also the basis for many CIRM-funded awards, including disease teams working toward therapies for HIV/AIDS and sickle cell disease. Ernest McCulloch died in early 2011.

In one question, MacLeans asked Till whether he had any idea what the cells would do for medical research. He replied:
For us, the potential for bone marrow transplantation was obvious. The potential for what is now called regenerative medicine wasn’t. It didn’t take off until 1998 when Thompson and Wisconsin showed that embryonic stem cells could be propagated in a cell culture. Then you can multiply these formerly rare cells by growing them in a culture. That raised the possibility that embryonic stem cells could be used for the kinds of things that are contemplated by those interested in regenerative medicine.
He went on to discuss cancer stem cell research in Canada, and mentioned the two Canadian scientists who are collaborative partners on CIRM disease team awards. (You can see summaries of those awards here.)
Toronto stem cell researchers John Dick and Tak Mak head up groups that have won funding in a competition set up by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine to take the cancer stem-cell field to the point where a drug can be developed and be ready for regulatory approval. My belief is that they are both capable of doing it.
I particularly liked Till’s response to a request to speculate on the next 50 years of medical research. He told readers to expect the unexpected:
I believe stem cell research will continue to achieve unexpected things and that’s the only prediction I’m willing to make. It will be unexpected because that’s how science functions. And I don’t know when either. I would certainly have not predicted iPS cells, I would have thought that experiment wouldn’t work. It did!
Till has retired from research, but has still been active in the research community advocating for open access to medical journals. Most journals where scientists publish their results are only accessible to those with subscriptions. He says those results should be available to everybody, not just those in the ivory tower. CIRM is working to amend our regulations to require papers published with CIRM funding to be publicly available within one year.



  1. Interesting post. Check out a related piece I did on stem cell pioneer and trailblazer for women in science, Dr. Florence Sabin.

  2. That was an interesting post, Paul. It's nice to read about some of the people who aren't as famous but who made important contributions. Thanks for highlighting her work.