Leading Edge / 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.


Reader Comments

# 1
Posted by Gord Mahaffy (BSc 1963) on January 5th, 2012 @ 12:40 am

My first job after graduating with a science degree in 1963 was at the Old Princess Margaret Hospital on Sherbourne Street. Floors 6 & 7 were research facilities that housed the newly formed Department of Medical Biophysics for the University of Toronto. I was classified as a research assistant. For four years I worked in a lab just a few steps from Dr. McCulloch’s lab. On at least one occasion, when an extra set of hands were required, I got to work with Dr. McCulloch’s assistants. I never appreciated the significance of this work until years later.

I do think Dr. McCulloch’s technicians deserve some credit. They were the hands-on people who loyally carried out Dr. McCulloch’s experiments. They included Dick Coarse, Bob Kuba, Rosemarie, Steve, and others whose names I cannot recall. (And if you think this was an easy job, try doing an IV injection on the tail vein of a mouse).

What an honour it is to have been present when some of this work was being done.

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