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Across the (other) pond
May 2012
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author


OTTAWA—On March 30, two of the world's leaders in stem cell research, Canada and Japan, forged an international partnership agreement to fund joint research projects on the epigenetics of stem cells. The collaborative agreement brings together the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), a health research investment agency of the Canadian government, and the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), an integrated organization for promoting innovation-oriented science and technology in Japan to advance national welfare and prosperity.  
The partnership may raise the question of how these vastly different 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 scientists discovered stem cells"—the Toronto-based duo of Ernest Armstrong McCulloch and James Till famously illustrated the presence of self-renewing cells in mouse bone marrow in the 1960s—while Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka made an important advance in the field just seven years ago when he successfully reprogrammed human adult cells to function like pluripotent embryonic stem cells.  
In addition to those groundbreaking findings, researchers from both countries have continued to invest in furthering the basic science behind stem cell research—separately and together. In 2008, for example, researchers from the University of Toronto, Japan's Kyoto University and Yamanaka signed a research-sharing agreement aimed at more quickly translating scientific discoveries from the lab into treatments for people with diseases like autism and cystic fibrosis. In 2011, 65 stem-cell research labs from Hamilton, London, Ottawa and Toronto came together to launch a province-wide partnership aimed at making Canada an international leader in stem-cell research. 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, the CIHR "got an overture from JST to forge a formal partnership in various areas of science, including health research," followed by the suggestion that the two nations "explore whether stem-cell research should be the area we focus on," says Phillips.
"Simultaneously, we were launching several projects related to epigenetics," he adds. "What we proposed to our Japanese colleagues is that we 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 and changes in gene activity, is a novel research area where both Canada and Japan demonstrate research excellence.
"The goal of this joint research program is to advance novel biological knowledge in the epigenetics of stem cells," said Dr. Michiharu Nakamura, president of the JST, in a statement. "It is also expected that the collaborative research among Japanese and Canadian scientists will contribute to develop innovative treatment methodologies for clinical medicine. "  
The exploration of stem-cell epigenetics is expected to yield two different outcomes, says Phillips.  
"One is cautionary—we want to know whether epigenetic changes will assure a practitioner that a cell line won't have deeper problems with time," he explains. "On the more applied side, epigenetics is moving to the point where potentially over the next five to 10 years, it may be possible to impose an epigenetic set of characteristics on the genome, or see if there are negative marks that you can remove. This is something that could bias an application toward a better outcome, or prevent a negative outcome from occurring."  
In addition, "we're seeing more on the epigenetics of cancer cells now, and scientists are providing fairly accurate biomarkers of certain problems," Phillips notes. "This could be quite important from a diagnostic perspective. Another application might be in terms of environmental toxins and how 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, over the next five years to support up to three research teams that will require the participation of Canadian and Japanese researchers. A funding opportunity will be posted on CIHR's and JST's websites in May. Specific aspects of the research to be performed have yet to be defined, says Phillips.
"One of our first steps will be to define that area of research, " Phillips says. "We want to create an incubator for researchers to come forward with their best ideas. We have no doubt that the people we will assemble on the Canadian and Japanese sides will make anyone looking at these teams from an international perspective say, 'Wow, these are the best researchers in the world.' We think these funds will enable some meaningful work to be done."  
Ultimately, "one of the main solutions resulting from this partnership is that we are going to be accelerating a really high-quality international research consortium," concludes Phillips. "All of the research will be beneficial to both Canada and Japan in a number of ways, but because all of the research to be funded will be open-source and published, it will improve the understanding of researchers across the world of the basic science around stem cells. We hope this will encourage people to commercialize the implications of this research."
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