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Meet the A-Team of stem-cell science

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Nothing about John Dick's accidental entry into science predicted the pivotal role he'd play in reshaping cancer research.

The 49-year-old grew up on a Mennonite farm in southern Manitoba, attended a one-room schoolhouse and set off to Winnipeg to become an X-ray technician. Had he not shared a house with university students studying biology he might never have said to himself: “I wonder if I could do that?”

Even now, sporting a blue tennis shirt in his boxy office in Toronto, with its westward view of an air-conditioning unit, he has none of the trappings of a star scientist.

The only symbols of his success are the 19 bottles of champagne lined up like soldiers along his window ledge. Since researchers often celebrate the publication of big discoveries with a bit of bubbly, his bottles tell the story.

There's the Moët his mentor bought him in 1985 when he showed a stem cell could replenish the blood of a mouse. There's a Brut Imperial from 1988 for the mouse that carried human blood. But there's only one bottle of Dom Pérignon, an '85, popped in 1994 for the paper that's now changing everything.

Dr. Dick's discovery of the first cancer stem cell that year has led to the flurry of recent breakthroughs redefining cancer biology. Scientists once believed all cancer cells could sprout and sustain a tumour. But proof is growing that this deadly power belongs only to a tiny subset of abnormal stem cells that had previously gone undetected. These bad seeds have now been identified as the source of cancers of the blood, breast, bone, prostate, and this week, in another finding from Dr. Dick, the colon.

The implications are staggering. Billions of dollars and decades of research may have targeted the wrong cells to cure the disease. No current treatment has been designed to kill them and they appear to be naturally resistant to the gold-standard therapies.

The work has whipped new optimism into cancer research, but Dr. Dick is loath to take too much credit. “It's rare in science you find something that is completely novel,” said Dr. Dick, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Stem Cell Biology. “Science is like laying a brick wall, one piece is laid over another.”

Science, like any other human endeavour, can be a slave to fashion. From 1975 to 1995, the research world was captivated by the wonder of genes and molecular biology, Dr. Dick said. “Cell biology had fallen by the wayside, and stem-cell research was carried on by a fairly small club of people.”

Starved of the big money available to cancer scientists south of the border, Canadians turned out to be founding members of that club. For fifty years they were “labouring in the shadows,” as one veteran put it, until Dr. Dick's work cemented what the previous generation had suspected.

“They have been the pioneers and they are the clear leaders,” said Max Wicha, director of cancer research at the University of Michigan. “There have been meetings all over the world. People are really jumping into this.”Since studies of embryo development in the 19th century, the idea of a stem cell that gives rise to all the body's tissue types has enchanted scientists. Among them was German pathologist Rudolph Virchow, the fabled father of the autopsy, who in 1855 also wondered whether cancer might not be the spawn of such “embryonic remnants.”

A hundred years later, it was a pair of cancer researchers in Toronto who first proved the existence of the normal stem cell. Ernest McCullough and James Till, working in 1957 at the then-new Ontario Cancer Institute, were interested in questions related to bone marrow transplants.

It seems a radical notion: blast patients with lethal doses of radiation to kill their cancers and then rescue them with infusions of cancer-free donated bone marrow to replenish the blood supply.

Such a therapy would only work if the donated bone marrow contained “seed” cells actually capable of growing an entire blood system. At first, they had assumed there were at least three types of seed cells: one to make red blood cells, another to make white blood cells and a third to make platelets.

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