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Large-scale stem cell cultivation partnership formalized

First industrial partnership for new Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine

The Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine signed its first industrial partnership recently with EMD Millipore. Pictured are Robert Shaw (left), the company's commercial director, and the centre's CEO, Michael May. (Elementalview photo)

Since James Till and Ernest McCulloch first made their stem cell discovery 50 years ago, Toronto has steadily become a world renowned centre for stem cell research. The Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), hosted by the University of Toronto, was founded to advance this ongoing tradition.

The centre, established in June 2011 with funding from the Canadian government’s Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research program, brings together leading regenerative medicine experts to accelerate research and development and bring these discoveries to market. On Feb. 27, CCRM signed its  first industrial partnership agreement, a $500,000 project with EMD Millipore, the Life Sciences division of Merck KGaA.

The goal of this partnership is to be able to produce large quantities of stem cells for clinical trials by translating two-dimensional culture methodologies into a three-dimensional format.

Michael May, CEO of CCRM, said the project will have commercial impact.

“Industry has been focused on the research scale, and this [project] is about working with a leading company to produce scales of cells that will have clinical relevance and, in the future, commercial relevance,” said May.

Professor Peter Zandstra of the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, the centre’s chief scientific officer, explained that when growing tissue cultures such as stem cells, researchers are typically limited by the surface area of the vessel. By improving bioreactors, the jar-shaped device in which cells are grown, researchers and industry will be able to use the entire volume of the device, as opposed to only the surface area on the bottom. This additional volume will enable industry to produce large quantities of stem cells needed to support initiatives such as drug testing campaigns. 
Robert Shaw, commercial director for EMD Millipore’s stem cell initiative, said the university’s history in this area of research and CCRM’s intention to translate research into commercial products is what attracted his firm to this partnership.

“What’s unique about CCRM is they have a real industrial and commercial focus,” said Shaw, who is also a St Michael’s College alumnus. “The history in terms of the discovery of stem cells is very important to us as is working with someone like Peter Zandstra, who is a world renowned scientist in this area.”

Knut Niss, manager of research and development for EMD Millipore’s stem cell initiative, also noted that Toronto is known worldwide for its expertise in the field of stem cell research.

“There are not too many clusters that have that kind of leverage,” he added.

Projects undertaken by CCRM are built around intellectual property, industry needs and solving pan-industry problems. This agreement with EMD Millipore is just one project that CCRM will advance with more than 20 companies. Millipore also expects this to create new business opportunities.

“Our business is to help researchers help industry provide products for therapeutics and drug discovery,” said Shaw. “We expect that the outcome of this research will provide us with new business opportunities, new product opportunities and solutions for the industry to help advance science.” 

CCRM is currently in discussion with six industry partners and plans to announce three new partnership agreements over the next few months.

“We think it’s important that industry be involved because they can tell us what the market needs,” said May. “By engaging them we will ultimately be able to create an industry in Ontario and Canada based on that experience.”

Zandstra shared May’s view and noted that by creating companies here the centre is initiating opportunities to commercialize Canadian research.

“Not only do we have the discovery aspect,” he said. “But we also have a way to take those discoveries and turn them into jobs and opportunities for Canadian companies.”