University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Winter 2012

Stem Cell Pioneers

Discovery by James Till and Ernest McCulloch stands as "one of the most remarkable medical-research achievements of the 20th century"

Photos Courtesy of University Health Network Photographics
James Till (left) and Ernest McCulloch

They have been called the most important partners in Canadian medical research since Frederick Banting and Charles Best, the co-discoverers of insulin in the 1920s. Unlike Banting and Best, however, James Till and Ernest McCulloch (MD 1948) remain largely unknown outside their field. This is both surprising and a shame, says Ottawa writer Joe Sornberger, who has written the book, Dreams and Due Diligence: The Discovery and Development of Stem Cell Science by Till and McCulloch (University of Toronto Press). Sornberger points out that the discovery, 50 years ago, of blood-forming stem cells by these U of T scientists “stands as one of the most remarkable medical-research achievements of the 20th century.” Indeed, their discovery quickly led to the use of bone marrow transplants in leukemia patients, saving countless lives.

Till and McCulloch’s legacy extends far beyond their groundbreaking discovery. Sornberger notes that the accomplished duo trained younger U of T medical researchers such as Tak Mak, a professor of medical biophysics who discovered T-cell receptors, and John Dick, a professor of molecular genetics who discovered cancer stem cells. Indeed, Dick was in the news recently for isolating – for the first time – a single human blood stem cell. Dick says the discovery is key to maximizing the potential of stem cells for use in clinical applications.

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