When her friends wanted Easy-Bake Ovens for Christmas, five-year-old Crystal Ruff wanted a microscope. Her science-obsessed mind was made up–she had no interest in baking cookies. Instead, she wanted to examine all of the dirt, rocks, feathers and bugs she could find around her home on the outskirts of Toronto.
Fast-forward nearly three decades and Ruff is no longer looking at microscopic organisms on blades of grass. She’s figuring out how to bring stem cell therapy and regenerative medicine to the masses. And she’s using the full-time MBA program at London Business School to do it.
Stem cell therapy is a burgeoning biomedical research area inundated in hype and controversy. The oldest and most common form of stem cell therapy is the bone marrow transplant, which has been used since the 1960s to treat such life-threatening blood diseases as leukemia. Since then, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and New York Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon have received stem cell treatments for injuries, and the research area was legitimized though a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. It’s now widely considered one of the most promising areas of biomedical research.
‘GROUND LEVEL’ ENTRY TO A BLOSSOMING RESEARCH AREA
Ruff has been deeply involved “on the ground level” of some of the area’s leading research for more than a decade. She got her start early as she graduated in the top 1% of her class with a degree in molecular biology from McMaster University–a large and top-ranked research university in Canada’s Ontario Province. There Ruff met Dr. Michel Rathbone, a leading neurotrauma researcher and practicing physician. She also developed a keen interest in the use of stem cells to treat trauma and other neuro-related disorders such as cerebral palsy. Except it was the early- to mid-2000s and stem cell treatment was still steeped in controversy and in the eyes of the media and public, stuck to the ethical dilemma of embryonic stem cell use.
“When I told people I wanted to work with stem cells, they said, ‘That doesn’t exist. What you want to do and what your vision is doesn’t even exist,'” recalls Ruff. “Yet. looking back on it, it was definitely a ‘yet.'”
While at McMaster, Ruff also worked alongside top breast cancer expert and physician, Dr. John Hassell, to examine the use of stem cell regeneration in treating breast cancer. The growing infatuation with regenerative medicine research and specifically, the use of stem cell therapy, led Ruff to pursue the possibility of seeing real outcomes from potential research.
TACKLING CEREBRAL PALSY
So after graduating from McMaster in 2006, Ruff went straight into a PhD program, focusing on regenerative neuroscience at the highly selective University College London. Her research revolved around examining which proteins helped–and more importantly–hindered brain regeneration. Upon graduation in 2010, her career, research and stem cell research were turbocharged.
Ruff returned to Toronto to take a postdoctoral fellowship in the Fehlings Lab, headed by Dr. Michael Fehlings, one of the world’s strongest neurosurgeons. Alongside Fehlings, Ruff began researching the use of stem cell therapies in cerebral palsy and other childhood brain and spinal injuries.
“Imagine being trapped in your own body,” Ruff explains, noting even though her parents were not scientists, she’s had a naturally scientific mind since the days of the Easy-Bake Oven debacle. “Their minds are perfectly functioning. But they’re trapped in this body that doesn’t respond when you tell it to move. And very unfortunately, that is the reality for many people today.”