Dr. John Dick
Dr. John Dick, a senior scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and a professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto, leads a Medicine by Design team that is trying to expand umbilical cord blood to make blood stem cell transplants more widely available. (Photo: UHN)

More than 50,000 people around the world receive blood stem cell transplants every year [Editor's Note: Link is no longer available] to treat leukemia and other blood disorders, making the procedure "inarguably the most successful and most widely used treatment in regenerative medicine," says Dr. John Dick.

In some cases, these transplants can be done with a patient's own cells. But those who need donor cells to replace their damaged blood still face a significant hurdle.

"The problem is that you need a transplant match and about two-thirds of people who would benefit from a transplant don't have a match," says Dr. Dick, a senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto (U of T).

Dr. Dick leads one of two collaborative team projects funded by U of T's Medicine by Design initiative that are trying to overcome this critical barrier. His team, which includes more than a dozen biologists, computational scientists and engineers from seven laboratories, is taking the small number of stem cells that can be harvested from the umbilical cord and placenta when a baby is born and trying to expand them in the lab to create a plentiful supply of transplant tissue.

The project builds on Dr. Dick's life's work of trying to understand how blood develops and how miscues in this process lead to disease, including his ground-breaking discovery 20 years ago of cancer stem cells as the source of leukemia.

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