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In one of the largest investments ever seen in the bio-tech industry, two multinational firms are investing US$225 million to launch a Toronto-based stem-cell therapy company, BlueRock Therapeutics, which will initially focus on the work of two UHN scientists.
The work of Dr. Gordon Keller, a world leader in stem cell biology and head of the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine, and Dr. Michael Laflamme, a cardiac cell therapy pioneer and Senior Scientist at Toronto General Research Institute, will be part of BlueRock's first efforts to commercialize an approach to regenerating heart muscle in patients who have had a heart attack or suffer from chronic heart failure.
The investment, by German drug maker Bayer AG and United States-based venture-capital firm Versant Ventures, was formally announced this morning at a news conference in the MaRS Discovery District.
"I truly believe that establishing BlueRock Therapeutics at this time is both a visionary and a bold move that will lead to new therapies for the treatment of cardiovascular disease," Dr. Keller told the audience, which included Federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Ontario Minister of Research, Innovation and Science, Reza Moridi, and Rob and Cheryl McEwen, whose philanthropy established the McEwen Centre, as well as officials from Bayer and Versant, and the scientific, medical and University of Toronto communities.
"The launching of BlueRock Therapeutics, in my view, is truly transformative and it will go a long way, be a major step forward, to establishing Toronto as a global leader in regenerative-medicine based therapeutics," added Dr. Keller, who is also a Senior Scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and a Professor at the U of T.
Premier Wynne called it "a very exciting time" and said that through the work being done at BlueRock hopefully "your discoveries will help prevent heart disease from developing in the first place."
Minister Bains called it "a truly exciting moment in Canadian history.
"We all know Canadian scientists are world-renowned for their research into how stem cells can be used to repair damaged tissues," he said. "The considerable investment today is proof of that expertize.
"It shows how publicly-funded research can be turned into potentially transformative technologies."
Dr. Axel Bouchon, head of The Bayer Lifescience Center, said "at BlueRock Therapeutics we're not dreaming about a cure, actually we want to really make this work for patients."
Jerel Davis, Managing Director, Versant Ventures, lauded the transformative nature of the work of both Dr. Keller and Dr. Laflamme and said they "represent the cardiac cell therapy dream team."
Dr. Bradly Wouters, UHN's EVP Science & Research and a U of T professor, said the investment by Bayer and Versant "demonstrates the confidence that these companies have in our science, in our scientists and in our community here at UHN, the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, the University of Toronto and the city of Toronto itself."
The field of stem cell science began 55 years ago in Toronto with the discovery of stem cells by Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch at the original Ontario Cancer Institute/Princess Margaret Hospital.
"It's impossible to overstate the enormity of Till's and McCulloch's discovery and long-time collaboration," said Dr. Christopher Paige, former EVP Research in 2011 at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of stem cells. "Their work changed the course of cancer research and lit the way to what we now call regenerative medicine – the use of stem cells for bone marrow transplants and many other types of disease research."
From that point in time, Toronto and UHN in particular has been an international hub for stem cell science with generations of scientists advancing knowledge of the stem cell and its uses in treatment.
The McEwen Centre was established in 2003 with generous donations from the McEwens. The mission of the McEwen Centre is to act as a catalyst for regenerative medicine by facilitating collaboration, supporting research, and promoting awareness of the field.
Today, the McEwen Centre includes 15 scientists at five Toronto hospitals and in U of T laboratories and the focus is the potential use of stem cells in the treatment of heart disease, diabetes, respiratory disease and spinal cord injury.
The McEwen Centre, based at UHN, is supported by philanthropic contributions and research grants, and collaborates with other research institutions throughout North America, Europe and the Asia/Pacific region.