Ottawa researchers make progress in MS treatment

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Ottawa researchers look for a viral cancer cure

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A viral cure for cancer is being unleashed on a human test patient from Dr. John Bell’s laboratory at the Ottawa Hospital.

The method is the first of its kind to be tested because it uses a combination of two different viruses.

The Maraba virus — synthesized from a Brazilian sand fly — will be administered gradually at different times with a common cold virus.

Right now a form of the Maraba virus is being grown by a team of suit-clad scientists in Bell’s lab, where it will eventually be administered to more than 70 patients over the next two years.

Fifteen years of collaboration between Bell, Dr. Brian Lichty and Dr. David Stojdl has led to this unprecedented, yet-to-be tested remedy for treatment-resistant tumours.

The theory is that the cold virus will prime the body’s immune system to recognize cancer as the enemy while the Maraba virus directly attacks cancer cells while also keeping them from coming back, according to Lichty.

The virus grown in the lab and unveiled at the hospital Friday is designed to attack a specific protein only found in tumour cells, called MAGE-A3.

Stojdl said the potential for this new method could have profound implications for cancer treatment in the future.

So far, researchers say the results have been promising in lab settings with mice.

But the next phase requires a human.

“When Dr. Jonker asked, I was intrigued at first, nervous” said former nurse Christina Moniker, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2012.

Moniker’s decision to be the first to use the double-viral treatment came after numerous rounds of radiation and chemotherapy.

Her husband Ludewyk said the family talked about the option to try the experimental medicine.

“I think you should go for it,” he told her.

Moniker was administered one half of the treatment last month — the Maraba virus. She said the effects weren’t as bad as the severe nausea she experienced from chemotherapy.

Further phases of the treatment will introduce both viruses in various doses.

“But anything could happen. We don’t know the outcome,” she said.

He shrugged: “Her hair could turn purple.”

Ludewyk added the doctor in charge of the clinical trial, Dr. Derek Jonker, has provided round-the-clock support during the experimental treatment

Uncertain Funding Threatens Promising Stem Cell Research

Sean Mullin, 49, has taken over $2 million worth of drugs to save him from a rare, but deadly lung disease. He first noticed this when he was in the office of his rental service and felt a sharp pain in his right arm. The disease is pulmonary arterial hypertension. Luckily, his wife’s drug plan covers the cost. Some of this medicine must be taken intravenously so Sean wears a drip all the time. He also has to have a steady supply of oxygen tanks to stay alive.

Presently, there is no cure for this lethal disease.

Mullin, who lives in southeast Ottawa, is closely watching the work being done at the Ottawa Hospital by Dr. Duncan Stewart and colleagues.

Stewart’s work on stem cell therapy offers hope, although it is now still in early development stages.

Stewart and his colleagues recently published the world’s first clinical trial results of therapy that treats the rare disease that Mullins has. The trial was based on genetically enhanced stem cell therapy. However, this one trial is a small step in the development process. But the results are promising for those suffering from this disease.

Stewart recognized the need for further testing by stating that larger studies will be required. Those studies will help determine the therapy’s usage and its durability to benefit the sufferers.

Funding that will be needed to actually treat patients is uncertain. This uncertainty is despite other stem cell treatments that have shown potential.

Canada is where stem cells were discovered and has been the leader in research in this field. Ironically, now that the therapy is showing new potential, researchers are facing more uncertainty about how they will get research funding.

Stewart is also heading a trial on the use of genetically enhanced stem cell therapy for heart attack damage. He stated that he thinks his jurisdiction is slipping further behind others in getting necessary funding.

Pharmaceutical companies have funded Phase 2 of these studies in the past, but are unlikely to do so now. Stewart said the academic researchers are responsible for the testing to move their work ahead. The first trial for pulmonary arterial hypertension carried a price tag of about $4 million. The research would total at least quadruple that amount in for Phase 2.

Canada has less research and trial funding available due to research funding changes. After 14 years, the Stem Cell Network, which has been an excellent source of funding for various research, is shutting down.

A coalition of researchers, advocates, and charities, called the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation is calling for $1.5 billion for a Canadian stem cell strategy. Even with this push, the federal government has not announced any funding. California and Japan, however, have invested $3 billion and over $1 billion, respectively, for stem cell research.

Canada has been a world leader in this research, but foundation president and chief executive, James Price, says some of that funding is coming to an end. In addition, patients have started traveling around the world to seek treatments that have not been tested and are expensive.

In the upcoming federal election, the foundation will plead its case to voters.

Stewart has studied pulmonary arterial hypertension extensively, even though the disease strikes one or two out of a million people. He has found through research that a synergy with using progenitor cells reinforced by an extra gene helps promote blood vessel repair. The same method is used for stem cells to restore the heart after an attack.

Sean Mullin says, “I pray for stem cell therapy. I just pray. It is the easiest way out for me.” There is a long road ahead to establish the safety and effectiveness of this stem cell treatment. And, it all depends on financial support.

Ottawa Hospital teams awarded $28 million in grants

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Twenty-two teams of researchers at The Ottawa Hospital have been awarded more than $28 million in research grants for projects that range from improving care for patients with life-threatening illnesses and studying blood donation.

The research grants, from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, were announced by Health Minister Rona Ambrose in Calgary Tuesday.

Dr. Duncan Stewart, executive vice-president of research at The Ottawa Hospital, said the grants are a signal that “The Ottawa Hospital is increasingly being recognized as one of Canada’s top research and learning hospitals. I think our success in this grant competition is one more illustration of that.” Ten years ago, he added, Ottawa was not seen as the powerhouse in research that it is today.


The benefits of the research being funded through the grants “will be felt not only by our patients at The Ottawa Hospital, but also around the world,” added Stewart, whose own research into cardiovascular regenerative medicine received a Foundation Grant.

Seven of the grants were awarded through CIHR’s Foundation Grants competition, aimed at providing significant long-term support to Canada’s top health researchers.

Dr. Ian Stiell, emergency physician, senior scientist and distinguished professor at University of Ottawa, received the top-ranked grant in the country in that competition. His $2.1 million research project will allow him to expand research on the “Ottawa COPD” (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) risk scale, which helps emergency physicians determine which patients with the disease should be admitted to hospital and which can be safely sent home. The tool not only improves patient care but could save Ontario’s health system $115 million over three years.

Dr. Stiell and colleagues are also conducting research to improve care for heart failure, cardiac arrest, stroke, traumatic injuries and other conditions.

Other Foundation Grants were awarded to Ottawa researchers for work in the areas of muscle regeneration, translating health knowledge into action, kidney transplantation, implementing evidence-based care, cardiovascular regenerative medicine and neonatal lung regeneration.

In addition, 15 grants were awarded to Ottawa Hospital researchers through CIHR’s Open Operating Grants Program competition. The research ranges from bladder cancer surgery, chronic disease prediction, stem cells and leukemia, retinal degeneration and pregnancy.

While Ottawa researchers were awarded funding at a rate well above the national average (23 per cent of Ottawa applicants received Foundation Grants, compared to a national average of 11 per cent), Stewart said the large number of worthy researchers nationally who received no funding is a worrisome trend.

“An awful lot of individuals, institutions and hospitals are going to have a very difficult year. These people are at risk of falling out of the system.”

Stewart said officials at The Ottawa Hospital were anxious about the two competitions and thrilled with the results.

“This is our lifeblood. We were hoping for the best and prepared for the worst.”

Ottawa Researchers to Study Abortion Issues in the Yukon and Nunavut

University of Ottawa researchers are seeking women who have had an abortion within the past ten years in the Yukon or Nunavut. Their goal is to document women’s experiences obtaining the procedure and to gain insight into how those services can be improved. The Ottawa researchers will use the information gathered from these Northern women as part of a broader national study. Jennifer Cano, the study’s administrator, hopes to hear from women in both rural and urban communities. She aims to “get a range of participants” to determine how experiences vary because of the additional medical travel required in the territories.


Obtaining an abortion in the territories is often an arduous task requiring considerable travel and long delays in service. As Taryn Turner, a reproductive health expert in the Yukon, asserted, “there are certain things here that are still different [from] elsewhere. You still have to get your abortion done in a hospital” which can take longer than at a clinic. Jan Stick, the New Democratic Party’s caucus critic for the Departments of Health and Social Services, and Economic Development, said that researchers would likely hear about study participants’ privacy concerns. Stick also noted that women in outlying Yukon communities must sometimes take numerous trips to Whitehorse for abortions and ultrasounds. Moreover, she explained, these lengthy trips are sometimes for naught because “abortions will be bumped for emergency surgeries because [they have] to be done in a surgical unit at the hospital.”