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Saskatchewan native Dr. Gordon Keller a leader in regenerative medicine

Jim Ross/jim ross The Globe and Mail

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

Gordon Keller, director of the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine, has been selected as one of 25 Transformational Canadians.

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When stem cell biologist Gordon Keller joined the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine in 2007, Canada gained back one of the world's most important medical scientists. The Saskatchewan native is a leader in the burgeoning field of regenerative medicine, whose goal is to replace or repair tissues damaged by disease, accident or old age.

As director of Toronto's McEwen Centre, which was established in 2003 by Goldcorp Inc. founder Rob McEwen and his wife Cheryl, Dr. Keller is keen to get results. He returned to Canada from a distinguished career abroad for the opportunity to do new things at the centre, where he is one of 15 principal investigators conducting research.

Using stem cell biology as one foundation, the McEwen Centre is developing new treatments for such afflictions as heart disease, diabetes and neurodegenerative illness. Among the centre's notable achievements, its scientists were the first to use gene therapy to prepare donor lungs for transplant.

One of many initiatives to come out of talks with the McEwens and other members of the business community is the centre's accelerated discoveries research program. "The idea is to have very defined projects with endpoints," says Dr. Keller, 57. "If the project is successful, we will move on with another award to leapfrog to the next step."

Setting those limits is a fundraising tool, he adds. "There are many donors who think it would be very attractive to fund such projects - where they know where their dollar is going, they can support a specific research project and they can actually get to know the scientists who are running the research project."

After graduating from the University of Alberta and doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the Ontario Cancer Institute - where he is now a senior scientist - Dr. Keller spent almost 25 years in Europe and the United States. In 2005, he became director of the Black Family Stem Cell Institute at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Keller says the first reason he and his wife, Marion Kennedy - a blood cell specialist in his laboratory - returned home was to work in Canada as Canadians. Along with the McEwen Centre, Toronto's strong scientific community was another draw.

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As for the commercial potential of its projects, Dr. Keller says the McEwen Centre may seek patents and strike licensing deals. For example, its novel methods of testing drugs on cells might be attractive to big pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile, the centre's stem-cell lab produces heart cells for distribution to Canadian and other researchers.

Dr. Keller says his job as leader is to speed up research as much as possible by bringing together outstanding scientists and giving them the resources to do cutting-edge work. To that end, he helps to secure funds by reaching out to the public. The McEwen Centre often runs lab tours, and once or twice a year it hosts a dinner and a formal, behind-the-scenes visit for invited guests. "There's nothing like having a look down a microscope and seeing a dish full of beating heart cells," Dr. Keller says. "That does more than all the talking in the world."

Gordon Keller on the 1984 epiphany that set his career course

That happened to me when I was working in Switzerland. A colleague of ours who was working in a lab in Germany came to give a talk at the institute I was working at, and he showed these beautiful mouse embryonic stem cells….And from this mass of cells, you could see some contracting cells, you could see some blood cells, all mixed together at that time. And I thought, 'If you could take a stem cell and make these different cell types from it, that's really got to be the field I want to be in.' And that really piqued my interest.

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