OTTAWA—On March 30, two of the world's leaders in stem cellresearch, Canada and Japan, forged an international partnership agreement tofund joint research projects on the epigenetics of stem cells. Thecollaborative agreement brings together the Canadian Institutes of HealthResearch (CIHR), a health research investment agency of the Canadiangovernment, and the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), an integratedorganization for promoting innovation-oriented science and technology in Japanto advance national welfare and prosperity.
The partnership may raise the question of how these vastlydifferent countries decided to work together on such a complex issue, but Dr.Anthony Phillips, scientific director of the CIHR's Institute of Neurosciences,Mental Health and Addiction, is quick to note that "Canadian scientistsdiscovered stem cells"—the Toronto-based duo of Ernest Armstrong McCulloch andJames Till famously illustrated the presence of self-renewing cells in mousebone marrow in the 1960s—while Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka made animportant advance in the field just seven years ago when he successfullyreprogrammed human adult cells to function like pluripotent embryonic stemcells.
In addition to those groundbreaking findings, researchersfrom both countries have continued to invest in furthering the basic sciencebehind stem cell research—separately and together. In 2008, for example,researchers from the University of Toronto, Japan's Kyoto University andYamanaka signed a research-sharing agreement aimed at more quickly translatingscientific discoveries from the lab into treatments for people with diseaseslike autism and cystic fibrosis. In 2011, 65 stem-cell research labs fromHamilton, London, Ottawa and Toronto came together to launch a province-widepartnership aimed at making Canada an international leader in stem-cellresearch. The partnership, known as the Ontario Stem Cell Initiative (OSCI),attracted partnerships with stem-cell researchers in California and Japan.
As a result of numerous such meetings and workshops, theCIHR "got an overture from JST to forge a formal partnership in various areasof science, including health research," followed by the suggestion that the twonations "explore whether stem-cell research should be the area we focus on,"says Phillips.
"Simultaneously, we were launching several projects relatedto epigenetics," he adds. "What we proposed to our Japanese colleagues is thatwe create a bilateral program that is not broadly defined around stem cells,and the area we agreed to focus on was the epigenetics of stem cells."
Researchers from both organizations note that epigenetics,which examines how environmental factors like diet and stress impact health andchanges in gene activity, is a novel research area where both Canada and Japandemonstrate research excellence.
"The goal of this joint research program is to advance novelbiological knowledge in the epigenetics of stem cells," said Dr. MichiharuNakamura, president of the JST, in a statement. "It is also expected that thecollaborative research among Japanese and Canadian scientists will contributeto develop innovative treatment methodologies for clinical medicine."
The exploration of stem-cell epigenetics is expected toyield two different outcomes, says Phillips.
"One is cautionary—we want to know whether epigeneticchanges will assure a practitioner that a cell line won't have deeper problemswith time," he explains. "On the more applied side, epigenetics is moving tothe point where potentially over the next five to 10 years, it may be possibleto impose an epigenetic set of characteristics on the genome, or see if thereare negative marks that you can remove. This is something that could bias anapplication toward a better outcome, or prevent a negative outcome fromoccurring."
In addition, "we're seeing more on the epigenetics of cancercells now, and scientists are providing fairly accurate biomarkers of certainproblems," Phillips notes. "This could be quite important from a diagnosticperspective. Another application might be in terms of environmental toxins andhow they might change epigenetic factors."
With the support of government officials in both countries,the CIHR and JST committed up to $6 million and $7 million, respectively, overthe next five years to support up to three research teams that will require theparticipation of Canadian and Japanese researchers. A funding opportunity willbe posted on CIHR's and JST's websites in May.
Specific aspects of the research to be performed have yet tobe defined, says Phillips.
"One of our first steps will be to define that area ofresearch," Phillips says. "We want to create an incubator for researchers tocome forward with their best ideas. We have no doubt that the people we willassemble on the Canadian and Japanese sides will make anyone looking at theseteams from an international perspective say, 'Wow, these are the bestresearchers in the world.' We think these funds will enable some meaningfulwork to be done."
Ultimately, "one of the main solutions resulting from thispartnership is that we are going to be accelerating a really high-qualityinternational research consortium," concludes Phillips. "All of the researchwill be beneficial to both Canada and Japan in a number of ways, but becauseall of the research to be funded will be open-source and published, it willimprove the understanding of researchers across the world of the basic sciencearound stem cells. We hope this will encourage people to commercialize the implicationsof this research."