Canada and U of T pride themselves of being pioneers of medical sciences, having participated in advances as important as the discovery of insulin and the identification of stem cells. Indeed, the Faculty of Medical Sciences is often named as one of the best , both locally and internationally, and Macleans magazine lists U of T as one of the top three medical and post-doctoral universities in Canada.
In the 1960s, U of T researcher Ernest McCulloch discovered special cells in the human embryo that had the unique capability of differentiating from a plain non-specialized cell into highly specific cells found in various human organs such as the heart, muscle and skin tissue. McCulloch termed these cells as pluri-potent and put Canada on the map as the leader in stem cell sciences.
2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of stem cells, but much has changed during these passing years. While Canadian and American researchers started off at the forefront of the field, the years of stem cell therapy controversies in Canada and the USA under the conservative governments resulted in the two countries losing their upper edge. President George Bush, a strict pro-life supporter, restricted stem cell harvest lines and research for almost eight years because of religious and ethical reasons. In Canada, the lack of funding and stagnant situation of stem cell American firms down-south also challenged the research sector.
According to the U of T research group in China, China has surpassed Canada as the leader in stem cell research. Chinese scientists trained in North American and European universities as international students have published over 1,000 academic journal papers on stem cells and regenerative medicine, compared to just 37 a few years ago.
Professor Thorsteindeitter of the Faculty of Public Health on the St. George campus called China a wild wild west of stem cell research. Professor Thorsteindeitter was referring to the increasing number of medical tourists flocking to China in hopes of finding a cure for their illness. Many scientists, like Thorsteindeitter, argue that western governments are not offering these novel treatments to the public due to the lack of clinical studies on stem cells therapies and restrictions on health care. In contrast, patients who desperately seek a cure after exhausting traditional methods volunteer themselves a research subjects in trials of new stem cell treatments that are being offered by medical institutions in China.
The U of T stem cell research team in China argued that rather than focusing on a race for stem cells, ethics boards need to establish robust clinical testing criteria and regulate controversial and unethical clinics, while at the same time learning how to conduct proper research from the Chinese research centres.