Ontario funding keeps Canada in stem-cell project

TheGlobeandMail.com – National/Ontario – Ontario funding keeps Canada in stem-cell project: Province kicks in $3.8-million over four years on international effort to map how genes work as embryonic stem cells develop
Jun. 12, 2009.   ANNE McILROY, SCIENCE REPORTER

The province of Ontario has pitched in enough cash to allow Canada to remain part of a major international effort to map the genetic circuitry of stem cells after federal funding was cut earlier this year.

Michael Rudnicki, the senior scientist and chair of the International Regulome Consortium, said yesterday he hopes the injection of $3.8-million announced by Premier Dalton McGuinty yesterday will be enough for Canada to continue its leadership of the ambitious project.

Genome Canada, an arm’s-length funding agency that finances large-scale science, pulled out in April. At the time, a devastated Dr. Rudnicki said it might have been because he has been so vocal in criticizing federal cuts to science funding in the January budget. Genome Canada was shut out of that budget.

Dr. Rudnicki was counting on Ontario to come through, and the $3.8-million over four years means he doesn’t have to lay off seven researchers and technical staff at the end of the month.

“I am absolutely delighted. This is critical support to maintaining the project and allows us to pursue a more focused scientific agenda. The Ontario government has to be congratulated and applauded,” the University of Ottawa researcher said yesterday.

In a visit to Ottawa yesterday, Mr. McGuinty announced $18.5-million in funding for cancer and stem-cell research at the University of Ottawa and the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, including Dr. Rudnicki’s project.

Canada proposed the International Regulome Project as a follow-up to the Human Genome Project, and brought together research groups from Europe, the United States, Britain, Australia and Singapore. They are mapping how genes work as embryonic stem cells develop and become more specialized, turning into brain, blood or bone cells, or the other 250 kinds of cells in the human body.

The Canadian contribution will still have to be scaled down because of the lack of federal funding, Dr. Rudnicki said. The project had received nearly $2-million from Genome Canada, but the researchers had requested another $20-million over five years.

The loss of Genome Canada funding meant he had to let go of eight members of the team, six in Ottawa, one in Montreal and one in Toronto.

But the Ontario money has saved the Canadian element of the project, Dr. Rudnicki said, and the jobs of another eight researchers and technicians. He said he applied for it long before Genome Canada pulled the plug, so Ontario was not reacting to that decision.

European labs say they have no trouble securing long-term financing for the $75-million project, but it has been a different story in Canada.

The head of Genome Canada, Martin Godbout, has said the decision to discontinue funding the project had nothing to do with lack of funds, but Dr. Rudnicki said that is not what Mr. Godbout told him in a telephone conversation.

Many researchers have criticized the government for freezing Genome Canada out of the budget and for cutting other sources of basic, curiosity-driven research.

But the federal government has defended its approach. Science Minister Gary Goodyear has said the cuts were just one part of a budget that included $2-billion for infrastructure projects at Canadian universities and community colleges and $750-million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which helps researchers buy expensive equipment.

The Ontario government is providing more of what researchers say Ottawa is scaling back on – money to do their experiments. A few weeks ago, Mr. McGuinty announced $100-million in new funding for genomic research. Yesterday he announced that the government would spend another $94-million in science funding.

Ottawa researcher John Bell, a leader in the field of using viruses to fight cancer, received $10-million so he and his colleagues can find new ways to encourage the human immune system to target cancerous cells.

“We’re trying to develop a suite of new biological therapies for cancer, not a single magic bullet and it will take a lot of work,” he said.

Dr. Michael McBurney was awarded $4.2-million to test a variety of viruses against a number of different kinds of tumours.

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