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Home > McGill News > 2001 > Fall 2001 > Newsbites

Stem Cell Breakthrough at McGill


They're said to be the possible key to unlocking the mysteries of Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes or cancer. They may one day be used to treat spinal cord injuries or even generate complex human tissue. But stem cells are also an ethical hot potato, involving as they have the destruction of a human embryo in their harvesting.

Now Dr. Freda Miller and her colleagues at the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill may have changed that with their research into adult-based stem cells. Miller has discovered multipotent stem cells in adult human skin.

The great attraction of stem cells is that they can produce very different specialized cell types: neurons, muscle cells, fat cells and so on (hence the term "multipotent"). This capability makes them a valuable research tool and a possible solution to many health issues. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, "It is not too unrealistic to say that [stem cell] research has the potential to revolutionize the practice of medicine and improve the quality and length of life."

But stem cell research has been endangered by objections to the use of human embryos. Some of that controversy could eventually be rendered moot by research like Miller's. While her adult stem cells do not yet demonstrate the same potential as embryonic stem cells (which are capable of producing about 200 cell types), they have produced six different cell types -- in itself a huge step -- and she and her team are still working on making more. "In the future," she says, "adult stem cells like ours may be able to do much more than has been shown, but we're still a long way from that.

"Before any of the potential of stem cells becomes reality," says Miller, "there are quite a few steps that we have to take. For example, we will have to learn how to convince the cells to become what we would like, to utilize them effectively in animal models, and then take the big step into clinical trials. As a consequence, I think it is very difficult to predict when -- or if -- stem cell therapy will be a reality, but I would imagine there will be clinical trials for at least some conditions within the next five years."

Miller's discovery was actually something of a long shot. Her lab at the MNI does research on the nervous system. "We 'blue-skied' that it would be wonderful to have an accessible source of neural stem cells, with the ideal accessible tissue being skin. We decided to go ahead and give it a shot for two months, with the idea that it likely wouldn't work and would be shelved along with all of those other crazy ideas, but that if it did work, it would be amazing."

And how does it feel when a crazy idea becomes a potentially revolutionary medical discovery?

"When we got our first inkling that we might be on to something, we literally jumped for joy. That lasted about five minutes, and then all of the doubts settled in. We were, in fact, on a roller coaster ride with this project for over a year, with many very high moments, and many sleepless nights, before we were convinced of what we really had. And now, we're just very determined to make this into a therapeutic reality if that is at all possible."


The Bobsledders of Summer

With record heat waves and little precipitation this summer in Montreal, bobsledding is not the first thing you expect to see on campus in July. But that's when McGill hosted the Eastern Canadian tryouts for Bobsleigh Canada at the McGill Sports Centre. Prospective sledders, male and female, were tested in strength and conditioning, and sprinting with weighted "sleds" harnessed to their waists as seen in the photos at left. Two athletes, not McGill students, were invited to the national camp.

News About Anosmia


Lisa Vatch, BA'00, has a disability many of us have never heard of, but she's working to bring it to public attention. Vatch was born with anosmia, the lack of a sense of smell. While her condition is congenital, millions of other people become anosmic through accident, head trauma or nasal infection.

"People with a normal sense of smell tend to trivialize its importance," says Vatch, "but it is impossible to ignore the plight of anosmics who fall into severe depressions or eating disorders due to the loss of smell and taste, or whose lives are endangered by the inability to smell smoke or gas leaks."

Although anosmic people can still sense the basic tastes of salt, sour, sweet and bitter, they cannot detect most of the flavour of food that is an olfactory, rather than taste, sensation. They also can't detect spoiled food, which can often lead to food poisoning.

"Anosmia is a mystery for most people who suffer from it and doctors are often unable to provide a solution," says Vatch. "It's definitely an area of medicine that has been under-explored."

Vatch has launched a web site to bring a greater understanding of anosmia to the public (as well as provide some support for anosmics), and she has founded the Anosmia Foundation of Canada, a non-profit organization helping sufferers gain access to information and treatment. You can visit the web site at

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