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Till and McCulloch award goes to U of T researcher

Stem cells used to identify potential leukemia therapies

Stem cell research at U of T holds promise for leukemia patients (Photo by John Guatto)

Canada's most coveted stem cell prize is going to a University of Toronto researcher who has only been working with the life-giving cells for a short time.

The Stem Cell Network has given the 2012 Till & McCulloch Award to Aaron Schimmer, an associate professor in U of T’s departments of medicine and medical biophysics.

The annual award recognizes the most influential peer-reviewed article on stem cells by a researcher in Canada. Schimmer was honoured for his paper on drug screening techniques for leukemic stem cells, published in the November 2011 issue of the scientific journal Cancer Cell.

"When I was notified by the Stem Cell Network that I had received the award and would be presenting the Till & McCulloch Lecture, I was truly surprised—and very excited," said Schimmer, who is also a scientist in the Ontario Cancer Institute at University Health Network.

"Our lab developed a stem cell focus in very large part due to our involvement with the Stem Cell Network, so it's fitting that the relationship has come full circle," Schimmer said. "For me to stand among the most prominent names in this field is a great honour."

By concentrating on Federal Drug Administration-approved drugs and testing their efficacy against leukemic stem cells, Dr. Schimmer's team identified one antimicrobial agent in particular—tigecycline, an antibiotic sometimes used to treat skin and abdominal infections—as a potential treatment for acute myeloid leukemia.

“Till and McCulloch’s lasting legacy is the promise of stem cell research for healing humanity,” said Dean Catharine Whiteside, U of T Medicine. “Professor Schimmer’s discovery holds significant promise for improving the lives of patients with leukemia and speaks to the enduring impact of their research, making him a most deserving recipient of this distinguished award.”

“Congratulations to Professor Schimmer,” said Professor Paul Young, vice-president (research) at U of T.  “Professor Schimmer’s work brings much-needed progress in the quest to develop effective therapies to treat leukemia. This important research is very much in keeping with the brilliant science of Professors Till and McCulloch.”

Despite being relatively new to the field of stem cell research, Dr. Schimmer brings extensive knowledge of chemical biology and drug discovery using robotic screening—a method known as high throughput screening that has become a valuable tool for identifying potential new therapies using stem cells.

"It is incredibly impressive how much progress Dr. Schimmer has made in such a short period of time by using these stem cell screening techniques," said Stem Cell Network Scientific Director Michael Rudnicki. "By identifying drugs which are already approved for human therapies and testing their efficacy in treating diseases such as leukemia, Dr. Schimmer has shaved years off of the clinical trial process. It is likely that his discovery will improve the outcomes for many patients in the near future."

The Stem Cell Network is an Industry Canada-funded Centre of Excellence that brings together more than 100 leading scientists, clinicians, engineers, and ethicists from universities and hospitals across Canada. The network first granted the Till & McCulloch Award in 2005 in honour of U of T researchers James Till and Ernest McCulloch, whose pioneering work established the field of stem cell research.

Schimmer will accept the award and present a lecture as part of the Till and McCulloch Meetings in Montreal on April 30.