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About Sickkids
About SickKids

November 7, 2012

SickKids Café Scientifique featuring stem cell research and immortality draws over 100

By Sylvia Dick

SickKids ballot box with hand dropping ballot in

The streets of downtown Toronto were chilly but the bar at the Hard Rock Café was warm and cozy as guests gathered for a night of drinks, debate and discussion the evening of Tuesday, November 6. With standing room only Dr. Derek van der Kooy, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto, introduced the hot topic of stem cell research, providing a glimpse in to the history, the current advancements and the issues on the horizon.

Joining van der Kooy were two of SickKids leading scientists in the Developmental & Stem Cell Biology Program, Dr. Janet Rossant, Senior Scientist and Chief of Research, and Dr. Freda Miller, Senior Scientist. Both Rossant and Miller joined in a friendly debate on the question of whether or not stem cells are the basis for immortality. Each side gave persuasive arguments and raised points about the science, ethics and social impacts of such a promising area in health science. Throughout the night David McGown, VP Public Affairs at CIBC, played the able host and moderator on behalf of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.

Stem cells were discovered in Canada by Dr. James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch and researchers in Ontario continue to be among the most highly cited in the world. The healing potential of stem cells is incredible and treatments already in use include transplants for leukemia and burn patients.

The idea behind SickKids Café Scientifique is to make science accessible to the general public in a relaxed and informal setting. These cafes are hosted by a variety of organizations and take place in pubs and coffee houses all over the globe. At SickKids innovation and collaboration are integral to the work we do and these events offer a great way to demonstrate the work produced here and open up the discussion with the broader community.

Last night Miller shared why she wanted to participate. “I am here because I feel it is important to engage society in these fields that are moving very quickly in science. These questions shouldn’t stay in the hands of scientists; we need to include everyone as we search for answers.”

Over 100 guests participated in the event, as votes were taken throughout the night to determine the winning side of the debate and establish if people changed their minds on the question – “Are Stem Cells the Basis for Immortality?” through the course of the discussion. The latter half of the evening featured a Q and A session where audience members challenged van der Kooy, Rossant and Miller with questions such as the possibility of storing stem cells for later use, the ethics of prolonging life, and the accessibility of treatment in developing countries.

In the end all scientists agreed that the real purpose driving stem cell research is not immortality, it is to help improve the health of humans as they age.

This SickKids Café Scientifique was generously supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Ontario Stem Cell Initiative and the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.