Published: November 2022

When caring for patients who suffer from a stroke — time is of the essence. In Canada, stroke is the third leading cause of death and disability in adults, but an innovative and ever-evolving stroke treatment, called thrombectomy, used at The Ottawa Hospital, is a game changer. The Ottawa Hospital is recognized worldwide for expertise in neuroscience, and we’ve made significant strides in addressing today’s most pressing challenges in neuroscience — including our international, groundbreaking work in stroke. In fact, we are leading the way in how stroke care is delivered in Canada, including the use of thrombectomy.

Ten years ago, a thrombectomy was an experimental stroke treatment — with life-altering potential. Dr. Robert Fahed was a medical student doing his residency program in neurology at a prestigious hospital in Paris, France, when he was first introduced to this novel procedure. In fact, he vividly recalls the results from the first thrombectomy he witnessed. “A woman in her 50s suffered a massive stroke. Her right side was paralyzed, and she was unable to speak because of the stroke. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a candidate for a drug used to dissolve the clot in the brain,” explains Dr. Fahed. “I thought to myself, this poor woman will be paralyzed for the rest of her life, if she survives.”

That’s when a member of the care team explained they were going to try an experimental treatment called thrombectomy. Dr. Fahed continued with his rounds and 30 minutes later, he received a shocking call. “The patient was moving her right arm. She wasn’t paralyzed anymore. I immediately thought, ‘I don’t know what happened in that room, but I want to be the one doing these interventions. I want to be the one bringing those people back to life. That’s what I want to do.’”

Attracting the best and brightest from around the world

Today, Dr. Fahed is one of only four interventional neuroradiologists and stroke neurologists in Canada. He was recruited to The Ottawa Hospital in 2019 — fulfilling his childhood dream of coming to live in Canada.

His parents immigrated to France from Syria before he and his sister were born, hoping for a better life for their children. Growing up in the suburbs of Paris, Dr. Fahed watched his father, a neurologist, care for patients day in and day out. And so, the field of neurology was a natural path for him to follow. “I’ve always liked neurology. It was pretty clear to me that I wanted to become a doctor. I was seeing my father as my hero. One of my very first electives was in stroke neurology.”

“The Ottawa Hospital is famous for its expertise in stroke. We have a very strong stroke program, and are a high-volume centre where we perform these treatments 150 to 200 times a year.”

— Dr. Robert Fahed
“The Ottawa Hospital is famous for its expertise in stroke. We have a very strong stroke program, and are a high-volume centre where we perform these treatments 150 to 200 times a year.”

— Dr. Robert Fahed
Meet Dr. Fahed

What are the symptoms of a stroke?

Dr. Fahed did most of his training at the Rothschild Hospital in France, which he describes as one of the centres where interventional neurology was pioneered. But this young physician also had a deep desire to do research, so he completed a master’s degree in Montreal before returning to Paris — but always longed to come back to Canada. “The Ottawa Hospital is known for its great research infrastructure and how much it supports researchers.” 

New technology changes the outcome for stroke patients

One-quarter of Canadians living with stroke are under age 65, and the risk of stroke rises rapidly after age 55. Eighty-seven percent of all strokes are ischemic strokes — when a vessel supplying blood to the brain is blocked by a clot.

The late Dr. Cheeman Lum and Dr. Dowlatshahi helped pioneer a technique called endovascular thrombectomy (ET) that saved the lives of numerous stroke patients. The findings from the trial known as ESCAPE were released in 2015. This unique procedure is performed by inserting a thin tube in the groin, where it travels through an artery until it reaches the clot in the brain. With the help of X-ray technology, the clot is then sucked out with the help of a pump, restoring blood flow to the brain.

“We're aiming to remove the clot completely, on the first try. We call it a home run.”

– Dr. Robert Fahed

While this was a groundbreaking procedure, more work was needed to better perfect it as they could only re-open the blocked artery 50 to 60% of the time. “That clot is not always easy to remove. Sometimes you need to try multiple times. Sometimes you can only remove part of it. If you can only partially reopen the vessel, you only partially restore blood flow, which means that some regions of the brain will be damaged. So, we’re aiming to remove the clot completely, on the first try. We call it a home run,” says Dr. Fahed.

These home runs are becoming increasingly common thanks to new technology — and the results can be lifechanging. A patient can go from being paralyzed and unable to speak to talking and walking within 20 minutes of the procedure.

How can you check if someone is having a stroke?

If you suspect someone is having a stroke, experts recommend using the F.A.S.T. method.

How we helped refine the technology to provide better outcomes

Recently, a new catheter device developed by a start-up in Kitchener-Waterloo showed promise at removing the clot on the first try. The company reached out to our stroke team for help in testing the effectiveness of the Health Canada approved equipment. “The Ottawa Hospital is famous for its expertise in stroke. We have a very strong stroke program and are a high-volume centre where we perform these treatments 150 to 200 times a year,” says Dr. Fahed.  

He adds, “We also have unparalleled scientific expertise in the design of studies to evaluate these tools. Because when you create a tool, you can’t just use it. You need to try it, evaluate it, and see if it’s safe and efficient. So, the company approached me and Dr. Brian Drake to investigate.” 

They used 3D-printed silicone models to test this new stroke treatment option using fake clots in 3D-printed blood vessels that mimic a brain. They spent many hours trying different ways to use this catheter. “We wanted to determine the best and most effective way to use it in patients, and we found an approach that was very promising and extremely efficient in the silicone model. Then we designed a study that uses the catheter in stroke patients, and we will compare the results of this trial with trials using different tools and devices,” says Dr. Fahed.  

"If the results continue this way, it's a major game changer. It's going to be a huge revolution in this field.”

– Dr. Robert Fahed

So far, the results are extremely promising. The success rate of pulling the clot out on the first try — the ‘home run’ — has increased significantly since using this newly devised catheter. “We are now able to pull the clot out completely on the first try in the vast majority of patients. If the results continue this way, it’s a major game changer. It’s going to be a huge revolution in this field.” 

What’s the connection between COVID-19 and strokes?

COVID-19 has been found to cause neurological complications, not just respiratory issues. Early studies show that COVID-19 could more than double the risk of a stroke, especially in people with other risk factors. Multiple studies have shown even young people are at a higher risk of stroke because of COVID-19. People who experience a stroke with COVID-19 are also at a higher risk for death or disability.

Disruptive innovations and treatments thanks to research

Dr. Robert Fahed_neuroradiology_The Ottawa Hospital_profile

“I'm proud to be part of such disruptive innovations and treatments — there is a lot of excitement in our field because the future is even brighter.”

– Dr. Robert Fahed

This treatment could be transformative for stroke patients and their families, and it if it continues to be successful, the benefits will be felt across the country impacting thousands — saving the lives of more people and saving them from disability. “I’m proud to be part of such disruptive innovations and treatments — there is a lot of excitement in our field,” smiles Dr. Fahed. 

Research plays a vital role in where we are today and the innovative advancements we’ve seen to date. “Today’s research is tomorrow’s care. What we are studying today will be the cutting-edge, groundbreaking, disruptive treatment that we can offer to our patients tomorrow,” explains Dr. Fahed.

His constant search for new stroke treatment options continues in the research he does today. Dr. Fahed is currently assessing whether algorithms used to determine which people are eligible for thrombectomy may be missing some patients. He’s testing these algorithms to make sure they give the same answers when assessed by different physicians or machines. There’s also research into the type of drugs to give stroke patients when they’re with paramedics, prior to the arrival at the hospital.  

Patient Testimonial
Mary Vanstone arrived at the Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital on September 27, 2022, after suffering a stroke at her home in Perth, Ontario.
Patient Testimonial
The ischemic stroke had completely paralyzed her left side. Dr. Robert Fahed was in the Interventional Neuroradiology Angio suite that afternoon and performed a thrombectomy on Mary shortly after her arrival.
Patient Testimonial
“They initially didn’t know what the long-term effects would be for me physically and even my brain when I first arrived. But I’m even better than I was before. They said I would likely be in for a week, but the next day, after the procedure, they said I could go home — everything was good! The hospital was fantastic. It was amazing.”

– Mary Vanstone
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According to Dr. Fahed, the future is bright, rapidly changing, and improving the lives of more patients. “The pace of evolution and improvement is exponentially higher and better every year. My job is already so different than what it was 10 years ago when I started. And 10 years from now, it will be a completely different field. We will be doing so many more things and doing them so much better.”

It’s a world that continues to fascinate this physician, much like that first thrombectomy he witnessed years ago.

“Today's research is tomorrow's care. What we are studying today will be the cutting-edge, groundbreaking, disruptive treatment that we can offer to our patients tomorrow.”

– Dr. Robert Fahed

Key stroke stats and facts

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

Published: October 2022

As a young athlete playing semi-pro soccer overseas and going to school, Haydn Bechthold admits he felt invincible. But a diagnosis of colorectal cancer at age 22 quickly changed that perspective. The news was a shock, not only to Haydn but also to his family and friends. He was young, active, and otherwise healthy, so a diagnosis of stage 3C rectal cancer was hard news to digest. “I remember thinking ‘Don’t Google survival rates,’” recalls Haydn.

When Haydn was referred to The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre, there was a full team assembled. He met with medical oncologist Dr. Joanna Gotfrit, followed by radiation oncologist Dr. Jenny Jin, and surgical oncologist and Director of Cancer Research, Dr. Rebecca Auer. He learned there was some good news — the cancer hadn’t spread.

Dr. Joanna Gotfrit is a medical oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital.

Dr. Jenny Jin is a radiation oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital.

Dr. Rebecca Auer is the Director of Cancer Research at The Ottawa Hospital.

A most unusual case of colorectal cancer

For Dr. Gotfrit, the first thing she remembers after learning about Haydn’s case was how unusual it was to have a patient his age with this kind of a diagnosis — typically, patients are decades older. “No matter the age, whether it’s a very young patient or someone who’s elderly, it’s never easy to deliver bad news. But there is an extra layer and challenge when patients are that young. It’s life-altering, no matter how the trajectory goes,” explains Dr. Gotfrit.

Haydn Bechthold was treated for rectal cancer at The Ottawa Hospital.
Haydn Bechthold was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at age 22.

When Dr. Auer left the exam room after meeting Haydn for the first time, she remembers feeling heartbroken, thinking about this young man’s life, his future, and the diagnosis he faced. The standard form of treatment for Haydn was radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery — each one would impact his life. He faced infertility, life with an ostomy bag, and the likelihood of recurrence. “That was hard, but having access to cutting-edge care, we quickly started to think outside the box. I called Drs. Gotfrit and Jin, and we decided to get molecular testing on his tumour,” explains Dr. Auer.

“We knew there was a strong chance we were going to find some rare molecular alterations in his tumour that may drastically change how we would want to approach this case.”

– Dr. Joanna Gotfrit

Those molecular markers from testing would be key to determining the path forward for Haydn’s treatment. Dr. Gotfrit explains while they had the diagnosis and knew the stage of his cancer, there were still underlying questions. “We knew there was a strong chance we were going to find some rare molecular alterations in his tumour that may drastically change how we would want to approach this case. And when I say that, I mean, it may open other avenues of treatment for him.”

Those molecular markers from testing would be key to determining the path forward for Haydn’s treatment. Dr. Gotfrit explains while they had the diagnosis and knew the stage of his cancer, there were still underlying questions. “We knew there was a strong chance we were going to find some rare molecular alterations in his tumor that may drastically change how we would want to approach this case. And when I say that, I mean, it may open other avenues of treatment for him.”

Navigating through the cancer journey

As Haydn and his family came to terms with the diagnosis and attended a multitude of tests and appointments, there was one constant: Mary Farnand — his nurse navigator.

A nurse navigator is a specialized oncology position. Mary works in the Cancer Assessment Clinic (CAC), and along with other nurse navigators at our hospital, is the first point of contact for patients who are being diagnosed. “We review the patient’s history, and initiate some of the work-up, such as bloodwork and scans, to make sure it goes as fast as possible and is personalized,” explains Mary.

“It’s a very difficult time in their life. Our role is to try and provide clarity as well as emotional support.”

– Mary Farnand

The CAC provides a central source of information, support, and advocacy for patients. “We receive referrals, review them, and try to understand what the patients need. We help patients manage symptoms, and if they live farther away, can we direct their scans to another hospital closer to home. We are that source of consistency for each patient,” explains Mary.

This role quite literally helps the patient and their family move through the cancer program and better understand what lies ahead. “We navigate with the patient, giving them as much information as possible to help inform their treatment decisions. It’s a very difficult time in their life. Our role is to try and provide clarity as well as emotional support,” says Mary.

Haydn and Mary Farnand at The Ottawa Hospital’s President’s Breakfast.

Photo by Ashley Fraser.

The CAC provides a central source of information, support, and advocates for patients. “We receive referrals, review them, and try to understand what the patients need. We help patients manage symptoms, and if they live farther away, can we direct their scans to another hospital closer to home. We are that source of consistency for each patient,” explains Mary.

This role quite literally helps the patient and their family move through the cancer program and better understand what lies ahead. “We navigate with the patient, giving them as much information as possible to help inform their treatment decisions. It’s a very difficult time in their life. Our role is to try and provide clarity as well as emotional support,” says Mary.

Haydn is adamant he couldn’t have done any of this without her. “She was such a huge help and so kind to me through this whole process. I remember having so many people contacting me early on and it was quite overwhelming, but Mary was always there. She was always willing to help me figure out what my next move was going to be. She was my constant source of support.”

That support would continue as Haydn’s team got a clearer picture of what kind of tumour they were dealing with.

When should I be tested for colorectal cancer?

People who have an average risk of colon cancer should start getting screened regularly at 50. For those with a higher risk — due to family history, a personal history of chronic inflammatory bowel disease, or other risk factors — it might be recommended to get screened earlier or more often.

Early signs of colon cancer include: persistent changes in bowel habits (unusual diarrhea or constipation), rectal bleeding or blood in stool, persistent abdominal discomfort, a feeling of incomplete bowel movements, weakness or fatigue, and/or unexplained weight loss. If any of those symptoms appear alone or together and persist, seeing a doctor is recommended.

Molecular Oncology Diagnostics Lab plays a key role

Further testing helped the care team plan the best course of treatment for this young man. Some of that testing happened at The Ottawa Hospital’s Molecular Oncology Diagnostics Lab — a first-of-its-kind in Ottawa.

The donor-funded lab is revolutionizing cancer diagnosis and treatment by allowing healthcare providers to analyze the genetic flaws inside tumour cells and tailor therapies to a patient’s individual type of cancer. This improves cancer care by giving care teams the ability to predict which drugs would work best for that particular patient’s illness and which drugs would not be beneficial.

Research conducted in the lab gives patients access to the latest experimental cancer therapies before they are available elsewhere. It’s the third lab of its kind in Canada to use the most advanced genetic analysis technology — next-generation sequencing — to analyze patterns from large groups of genes or proteins. The end goal is to improve the detection and control of cancer with more precise treatments customized for each patient.

Haydn and Dr. Auer at The Ottawa Hospital’s President’s Breakfast.

Photo by Ashley Fraser.

“Haydn got this cutting-edge treatment about one year before the world knew anything about it. This was because we have a highly knowledgeable and courageous team that decided to think outside the box for a 22-year-old with cancer.”

– Dr. Rebecca Auer

As Haydn’s team awaited the results of his testing, he was prepping for radiation which was set to begin in March 2021. But as the day approached for his first treatment, he got a call that would change everything. “It was a conference call unlike any I’ve ever experienced. All three of my doctors were on the line. They explained biomarker testing on my tumour showed I had what’s known as MSI-H cancer, which meant I was eligible for a certain type of immunotherapy treatment,” recalls Haydn.

This unique sub-type of rectal cancer has responded well in clinical trials to immunotherapy. As the team explained to Haydn and his family, they used data from the literature to come up with an individualized treatment plan — one they believed would give him the best long-term outcome. “Haydn got this cutting-edge treatment about one year before it was widely known. This was because we have a highly knowledgeable and courageous team that decided to think outside the box for a 22-year-old with cancer,” explains Dr. Auer.

Testing also revealed Haydn had Lynch syndrome — an inherited condition that increased his risk of certain cancers, including colorectal cancer. These test results were valuable information that allowed his care team to develop a personalized treatment for his unique case. They believed immunotherapy would give Haydn the best chance to live a long, healthy life.

The hope of immunotherapy

When Haydn was presented with this alternative to the standard of care, he was excited, but also nervous. “While I was nervous to try something new and futuristic like this, I was also excited by the hope immunotherapy offered me. My family and I had complete faith in my doctors, knowing they could access this treatment, which had been successful in very early studies,” says Haydn.

“The scan showed my tumour had shrunk by almost half. It was incredible.”

– Haydn Bechthold

For Dr. Gotfrit, being able to offer Haydn this treatment option was a gamechanger. She recalls just eight to 10 years ago, as an internal medicine resident rotating through oncology, there was very little personalized medicine. However, that is changing rapidly. “More and more data, discoveries, and developments about the molecular basis of tumours are coming to light. And, importantly, drugs that could directly target those molecular alterations are being developed. So instead of chemo that essentially ‘shoots to kill’ any rapidly dividing cells in a very nonselective way causing a multitude of side effects everywhere in the body, we’re now developing therapies that are much more selective and can directly target specific mutations in tumours. Being able to identify these molecular alterations is a huge step forward for oncology, giving us more options with a better quality of life. So, it’s a win on all accounts.”

On April 1st, 2021, Haydn started immunotherapy treatment. Within a month of treatment, all of Haydn’s symptoms were gone. No more blood in his stool, no more pain, his energy was back, and he was no longer losing weight.

What is immunotherapy?

Cancer immunotherapy, or immuno-oncology, is a treatment that harnesses a patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer. It works by “training” the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells, strengthening immune cells to fight cancer, and/or helping the body boost its immune response in other ways. There are many different forms of, and ways to deliver, cancer immunotherapy, including targeted antibodies, vaccines, cell transfers, viral therapies, and more. Cancer immunotherapy is a biotherapy, and it might be used on its own or in combination with other treatments, like surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.

The news got even better with his first scan two months after treatment began. It was news Haydn was thrilled to hear. “The scan showed my tumour had shrunk by almost half. It was incredible.”

Ready for J-pouch surgery

The immunotherapy treatment continued until July 2021. At that point, the tumour couldn’t be seen on the latest scans and that’s when Dr. Gotfrit called Dr. Auer to say this young man was ready for surgery.

By August, a major operation was planned to remove the remaining signs of the tumour and the surrounding lymph nodes. Haydn also underwent a procedure known as J-pouch surgery. This would remove his entire colon to help eliminate any future risk of cancer, while also allowing him to live a normal life without an ileostomy bag. It was during this surgery that Dr. Auer made a remarkable discovery — there were no signs of cancer. “This was a really wonderful moment. Thinking back to the day I met him, and I thought for sure he was going to break my heart, here we were with a really amazing outcome. This was a young man who potentially had his whole future back,” says Dr. Auer.

Once the J-pouch healed, Haydn was back in the operating room in November of 2021, this time with Dr. Shaheer Tadros and Dr. Auer to remove the temporary ileostomy and finish the J-pouch procedure. He was about to get his life back.

How J-pouch surgery works

BEFORE SURGERY

  • Colon and rectum present
  • Patient suffering from symptoms

DURING SURGERY

  • Colon and rectum removed
  • J-shaped pouch constructed from small intestine and attached to anus
  • Ileostomy bag placed during surgery to help with the healing of the pouch

SECOND-STAGE SURGERY

  • Ileostomy bag reversed
  • POST SURGERY J-pouch and anus fully functioning

The role research plays in changing the course of cancer care

When faced with a challenging cancer case, our cancer experts didn’t settle for the standard of care — knowing the long-term impact it could have on Haydn’s life. Instead, they dug deep and offered him an alternative with better long-term quality of life — immunotherapy treatment.

Since starting her own research laboratory at The Ottawa Hospital in 2007, Dr. Auer has focused on the interplay between cancer, surgery, and the immune system — making many important discoveries. “Surgery is very effective in removing solid tumours. However, we’re now realizing that, tragically, surgery can also suppress the immune system in a way that makes it easier for any remaining cancer cells to persist and spread to other organs.”

Dr. Auer’s team has discovered how this happens and they are now testing different strategies in the lab and in patients to modify the immune system and prevent cancer from coming back after surgery. These trials often include patients with colorectal cancer.

Just a few years ago, Haydn never gave much thought to research, let alone cancer research, but his views are very different today. “There are so many advances every year in this field, especially clinical trials, it’s really exciting. I think a lot of people hear the term clinical trials, myself included when I was in treatment, and are quite scared. But a lot of the time, it’s the most up-to-date or newest form of treatment and possibly the best, so the importance of research is massive.”

Setting his sights on the future

Just a few months after Haydn’s second surgery he started feeling like his old self. He began exercising again and putting on weight. Incredible progress in a very short time after his shocking diagnosis.

Today, Haydn continues to be monitored closely by Dr. Gotfrit, and will be for the next few years, but the cancer is gone and he’s getting back his life. As far as his medical oncologist is concerned, that’s the best possible outcome she could have imagined for him. “This is exactly why you go into medical oncology. It’s the absolute best feeling in the world to put in all that effort, thought, and agonize over what’s the right thing to do for this young man. And then make the best decision possible and see that it worked as well as or better than you ever could have imagined. It’s hard to describe how good that feels,” says Dr. Gotfrit.

The Ottawa Hospital’s President’s Breakfast was held Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, at the Canadian War Museum.

Mary Farnand, Dr. Auer, Haydn and his parents at The Ottawa Hospital’s President’s Breakfast.

Photo by Ashley Fraser.

“I also realize how incredibly fortunate I was to have The Ottawa Hospital and this team of doctors who wouldn’t settle for traditional treatments — who thought outside the box to give me the best life possible.”

– Haydn Bechthold

For Haydn, it’s a team effort he won’t soon forget. “I never worried about death before this, but I realized I’m not invincible. I also realize how incredibly fortunate I was to have The Ottawa Hospital and this team of doctors who wouldn’t settle for traditional treatments — who thought outside to box to give me the best life possible. I felt like they all really cared.”

Now living in Toronto and going to law school, you can still find Haydn kicking the soccer ball around for fun, and he says with a smile that he might not be done with soccer yet. Now he has time on his side to make that decision.

Listen to Haydn share his story in his own words in episode 69 of Pulse Podcast.

Listen Now:

Published: September 2022

When Geneviève Bétournay reflects on the past decade, she thinks about the adversity she has overcome. As the owner of the Art House, a coffee house/art gallery, she’s endured keeping her business alive during the pandemic. However, an even bigger challenge was her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2010. Today, thanks to a life-changing stem cell transplant at The Ottawa Hospital, she has a whole new perspective on the possibilities that lie ahead for her.

Geneviève is no stranger to adapting to change. She was in her early 20s and going to university when she started to have issues with her vision. Especially during stressful times, her vision would become blurry, but she didn’t associate it with anything more serious. That changed when she was 23 and living in Japan — new symptoms emerged. “I had more issues with my vision. It was getting worse and that was scary. Also, my foot would drop — it would drag when I tried to move it and there were other issues related to movement,” recalls Geneviève.

Geneviève Bétournay, owner of the Art House, was treated for multiple sclerosis at The Ottawa Hospital.
Genevieve Betournay was treated for multiple sclerosis at The Ottawa Hospital.

News of MS diagnosis hits hard

When she returned home from Japan, she started to seek answers, but it was some time before anyone would connect the dots and uncover the problem. “Ultimately, it was the vision issues that ended up getting me to see a neurologist because basically, my optometrist was able to get my prescription right, but my vision was still blurred,” explains Geneviève.
It was Geneviève’s neuro-ophthalmologist that first revealed the severity of what she was facing. Early indications suggested her symptoms could be the result of a brain tumour or MS. “I remember that day sitting in the office. I was extremely emotional because I didn’t know what that meant to be honest. When you grow up, in our society as it is, chronic illness is not something that’s talked about all that often.”

An MRI finally provided Geneviève with answers. But along with those answers came the shock of an MS diagnosis.

“What is life with MS? What would life even look like? It just sounded scary. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.”

– Geneviève Bétournay

MS is a condition that can affect the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide range of potential symptoms, including problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation, and balance. For Geneviève, there were so many unknowns and even more questions. “What is life with MS? What would life even look like? It just sounded scary. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me,” she says.

Infographic, MS effects on the body
1

Fatigue, cognitive disruption, mood changes

2

Vision issues such as vision loss, blurred vision, and double vision

3

Difficulty with speech and swallowing

4

Incontinence and digestive problems

5

Difficulty with hand-eye coordination and numbness/tingling in hands

6

Sexual dysfunction

7

Loss of power in a limb or numbness

8

Walking difficulties and balance problems

Effects of MS on the body

  1. Fatigue, cognitive disruption, mood changes
  2. Vision issues such as vision loss, blurred vision, and double vision
  3. Difficulty with speech and swallowing
  4. Incontinence and digestive problems
  5. Difficulty with hand-eye coordination and numbness/tingling in hands
  6. Sexual dysfunction
  7. Loss of power in a limb or numbness
  8. Walking difficulties and balance problems

Groundbreaking MS treatment pioneered in Ottawa

Once Geneviève and her family processed the news of her diagnosis, she learned everything she could about the illness. A family friend, who happens to be a nurse, had heard a lot about Dr. Mark Freedman and his transformational MS stem cell transplant research in collaboration with Dr. Harold Atkins and encouraged Geneviève to get in touch with The Ottawa Hospital’s MS Clinic. Meeting Dr. Freedman was a pivotal day that would shed new light on her future. “I see it as one of those very lucky life-changing moments when I made that call,” explains Geneviève.

Twenty-four years ago, many were skeptical when Drs. Atkins and Freedman first proposed the idea of using stem cells to reprogram the immune system to halt the progression of MS. Today, they are known for pioneering this groundbreaking treatment which is now being used in many countries around the world. In fact, it was serendipity that led Dr. Atkins, a hematologist, and Dr. Freedman, a neurologist, to meet while they were working on a different project. The two started to discuss stem cell transplants and that would ultimately lead to the transformation of MS treatment.

While this was a time of uncertainty for Geneviève, she felt she was in the right hands to handle the complexity of her case. “Dr. Freedman was very kind from the beginning. It was very comforting to know that there were multiple treatment options if something didn’t work.”

Twenty-four years ago, Drs. Mark Freedman and Harold Atkins proposed the idea of using stem cells to reprogram the immune system to halt the progression of MS.

Initially, Geneviève received the first line of treatment for a year that included injections every two days; however, it didn’t provide positive results. Next in line was a form of chemotherapy that targeted her immune cells. She remained on that treatment for two years, but once again, the results didn’t have the impact her medical team had hoped for, so, in January 2013, Dr. Freedman recommended the MS stem cell transplant.

MS symptoms were progressing quickly

At this point, Geneviève’s MS was progressing quickly. Both of her eyes were now affected, and increasingly her mobility was impacted. “I felt numbness below the waist. It was very difficult for me to walk unassisted. I would need something to hold on to — either a person or a wall or something like that. There were also issues with muscle spasms and dizziness,” explains Geneviève.

Geneviève received a stem cell transplant at The Ottawa Hospital to treat MS.
Geneviève in 2013, receiving a stem cell transplant to treat multiple sclerosis.

Headaches were also a challenge, and life was becoming more difficult for this young woman who was working on her Master’s degree at UOttawa. Her degree was in organic chemistry, and lab work was challenging because of blind spots in her vision and a lack of dexterity. When it came time to decide whether to participate in the transplant, she explains there was no decision to make. “I knew about this treatment from the beginning. It was always in the back of my mind. I had already processed it. I do remember being sad that nothing else had worked and I had to do this or else my condition would continue to go downhill rapidly. It gave me hope but it was a very emotional day,” recalls Geneviève.

“I felt numbness below the waist. It was very difficult for me to walk unassisted. I would need something to hold on to.”

– Geneviève Bétournay

She remembers the compassionate support she received from Dr. Freedman when it was time to consider the transplant. He explained it would be one of the hardest decisions she’d ever make and encouraged her to take the time to make sure it was right for her.

Geneviève learned that she could become infertile because of the procedure, so in the few months before her transplant, she had some of her eggs harvested and she also received a shot that could allow her eggs to go into “hiding” during the treatment.

Time for the MS stem cell transplant

In July 2013, Geneviève received her stem cell transplant. The process begins with purifying and freezing the patient’s stem cells which will later be “cleaned” in the lab. The next step is a strong chemotherapy treatment to destroy the patient’s immune system. The final step is the transplant of the clean stem cells back into the patient — that’s when a new immune system starts to develop.

It’s not an easy process, but Geneviève was focused on what the result might give her. “Mentally and physically, it was challenging, but to be honest, I’m a different person today because I went through that.”

See the journey stem cells take during autologous stem cell transplantation.

How did a stem cell transplant halt MS?

Geneviève underwent an immunoablation and autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (IAHST) to treat her MS. It’s a groundbreaking treatment pioneered by researchers at The Ottawa Hospital for patients with certain forms of multiple sclerosis. It involves harvesting and treating a patient’s own stem cells to remove traces of disease, eliminating their immune system, and then creating a new one using their newly “cleaned” stem cells. IAHSCT is currently being used to treat two other rare autoimmune disorders: myasthenia gravis and stiff person syndrome.

“Those moments where something happened that I wasn’t able to do before – it’s like pure euphoria. It was joy. It was gratitude for something that you never thought you’d ever feel again.”

– Geneviève Bétournay

Geneviève says she was in the hospital for eight days before she was able to go home because she didn’t have any major infections or require constant monitoring. Also at that point, her cell counts started to go back up — her new immune system was starting to grow. She returned to the hospital as an out-patient for several months.

The next step was to determine the impact the transplant would have on her overall health. It took between eight and 12 months for Geneviève to recover, and then she started to notice tiny improvements. “That’s when I first noticed I could do something that I couldn’t do before, or I had lost the ability to do. The first thing I noticed was I could lift my right leg, because my right side was more affected than the left.”

As Geneviève saw these small improvements begin, she tried to temper her expectations. She didn’t want to let her hopes get too high, but she admits sometimes she couldn’t resist. “Those moments where something happened that I wasn’t able to do before — it was like pure euphoria. It was a joy. It was gratitude for something that I never thought I’d ever feel again.”

Was it all worth it?

Over the past decade, Geneviève has seen every single symptom get better. From lifting a single toe to moving a foot to being able to jump again, and then walking several kilometres without tripping and falling to the ground — these are big milestones on her road to recovery. The signs of MS are disappearing. “To date, it would seem I have not had any new relapses. No new disease activity. My vision improved, and I continue to recover, albeit very slowly as it takes a while to heal.”

When Geneviève reflects on how far she’s come, had she not undergone the stem cell transplant, she believes she would likely be in a wheelchair today. “It was 100% worth it. Just the fact that I can move blows my mind. I have a great deal of gratitude for the doctors and everything the hospital had done for me.”

And today, with only a slight limp, she walks up the steps into the Art House and appreciates each moment she has to celebrate the creative artists in our city and transformational treatment she received at our hospital. “It’s priceless what I have gained. Aside from developing MS, nothing has had a more extensive impact on my life than undergoing this stem cell treatment. Simply put, it saved my life, or perhaps you could say it gave me a second one.”

Geneviève showing her ability to jump after receiving a stem cell transplant at The Ottawa Hospital.
Before her stem cell transplant, Geneviève had difficulty walking unassisted.

“It’s priceless what I have gained. Aside from developing MS, nothing has had a more extensive impact on my life than undergoing this stem cell treatment.”

– Geneviève Bétournay
Listen to Geneviève share her journey with MS in episode 66 of Pulse Podcast.

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Rare is a word used to describe Bryde Fresque on many levels. He has a zest for life that sets him apart. In fact, his physician Dr. Carolyn Nessim, a surgical oncologist and clinician investigator at The Ottawa Hospital saw this firsthand when Bryde faced a diagnosis that would have him battle for his life, with one rare condition after the other. Ultimately, it would take a skilled team to come up with a diagnosis and treatment for Bryde – a pheochromocytoma – an uncommon tumour that left Bryde’s future uncertain.

Bryde’s journey to his diagnosis of a rare cancerous tumour began on Boxing Day of 2012. He was travelling home from Napanee when he started to have pain in his left side. He stopped at a pharmacy just outside Ottawa and by the time he got to the counter he was doubled over in pain. The pharmacist told Bryde to get to the closest hospital — a community hospital was not far away.

Not long after arriving in their emergency room, Bryde was sent by ambulance to The Ottawa Hospital where he could receive care that is more specialized. He was in a tremendous amount of pain. Upon arrival, Bryde was suffering from a spontaneous hemorrhagic rupture of the left adrenal gland and he was bleeding significantly. Thankfully, he was in good hands as our interventional radiologists performed an emergency embolization procedure. This is a procedure where a guide wire was placed in a vessel in his leg and that allowed physicians to get all the way to the bleeding vessel by the adrenal gland, at which point they injected a product that plugged the vessel and stopped the bleeding. He was hospitalized for ten days before he was able to go home.

Unusual symptoms continue to develop

Bryde continued to feel off. A young, active man, Bryde recalls unusual symptoms that he couldn’t shake. “I remember feeling really sweaty, I couldn’t cool down properly. I would stand under the gym’s cold water shower for 15 minutes post bike ride and it didn’t make a difference,” recalls Bryde.

By the summer of 2013, he was going through a battery of tests and questions at our Cancer Centre to try to pinpoint the diagnosis.

“He had such rare conditions – one right after the other.”

— Dr. Carolyn Nessim

Bryde Fresque, who was treated for a rare pheochromocytoma at The Ottawa Hospital, pictured kayaking in Iceland with his wifte, Natalie.
Bryde and Natalie kayaking in Iceland.

Though, at only 32 years old, cancer was the furthest thing from Bryde’s mind. “I was young, healthy, a non-smoker, non-drug user, and active. That active part of my life was actually the only time I initially showed symptoms. That’s when I would overheat on even the coolest days and couldn’t cool down afterwards.”

The spontaneous rupture of Bryde’s adrenal gland six months earlier contributed to the challenge of pinpointing a diagnosis. It was believed he suffered from a large hematoma – a large residual clot after the bleed. “He had such rare conditions – one right after the other. A spontaneous rupture of an adrenal gland happens very rarely. I would say the challenge is that because the blood clot is so significant, it hides the underlying tumour and so it’s difficult to identify on imaging,” says Dr. Nessim.

Pinpointing the cause

Bryde Fresque was treated for a rare cancer (pheochromocytoma) at The Ottawa Hospital
Bryde Fresque was treated for a rare cancer at The Ottawa Hospital.

As time progressed, Bryde developed issues breathing, he couldn’t bend in certain directions, and then he noticed a distention on his left side. Signs that had been pointing to a hematoma didn’t add up because a hematoma should have healed within a few months, according to Dr. Nessim. That’s when she started looking at the fact this could be a tumour.

Bryde’s case ultimately landed with The Ottawa Hospital Sarcoma Tumour Board. “We meet every Friday to discuss complex cases like Bryde’s. Everyone is in the room including medical oncology, radiation oncology, pathology, radiology, and surgery. We take each individual case and we discuss it as a group to determine the best course of action for a patient,” explains Dr. Nessim.

This panel of experts decided that surgery was the best course of action to not only diagnose Bryde’s condition but to treat him at the same time and remove this tumour that had significantly affected his quality of life. Given the large size of the tumour and the extent of organs it seemed to be invading on imaging, this would be a long and extensive operation with many potential risks and complications that would be best mitigated by a specialized team. The sarcoma team is well equipped and knowledgeable in how to do these complex operations. Our hospital is one of the three Cancer Care Ontario designated Sarcoma Centers in the province. Although Bryde did not have a form of sarcoma, the surgical approach for a pheochromocytoma is the same.

Most unusual pre-op visit

By the fall of 2013, the mass located on Bryde’s left side was now the size of a cinder block. Staying true to his rare and unique personality, Bryde, who loves Halloween, showed up for his pre-op appointment on October 31, 2013, wearing his homemade Iron Man costume!

On November 15, a huge team of more than 20 medical professionals assembled in the operating room. As Bryde lay on the operating table awaiting surgery, he recalls Dr. Nessim telling the team about the Halloween pre-op appointment, “Then she looked down at me and said, ‘Take a deep breath, Iron Man’ as I was intubated.”

Bryde had to put his full trust in Dr. Nessim and her team during the complex, 12-hour surgery. The procedure can carry several risks because although Bryde seemed to have a non-functional pheochromocytoma, with the stress of surgery there is always the risk of stimulating the tumour causing it to release adrenaline, which can lead to a serious increase in blood pressure during surgery. Bryde was given some special medications during the operation to help ensure that didn’t happen.

“I feel privileged every time I’ve been able to help a patient.”

— Dr. Carolyn Nessim

Dr. Carolyn Nessim, a surgical oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital
Dr. Carolyn Nessim, Bryde’s surgical oncologist

Just prior to going into the operating room for this intricate surgery, Dr. Nessim reviewed the scans one last time and then visualized each step, planning the order they would follow to remove the tumour successfully. The highly skilled group alongside Dr. Nessim included a urologist, a thoracic surgeon, and a Hepato-Biliary and pancreatic surgeon, along with two anesthesiologists. “It was a big case,” says Dr. Nessim.

Bryde had his left kidney removed, as well as his left adrenal gland, and a third of his pancreas. They performed a colon, bowel, and diaphragm resection and reconstruction for each, removed his spleen as well as an accessory spleen, which can be found in many patients, 10 lymph nodes, and the hematoma. Thankfully, Dr. Nessim was also able to remove the entire tumour. The surgery was a success.

Finding the answers

Bryde spent a total of 40 days in hospital recovering, and it was during that time that he finally received an explanation for his symptoms. He was diagnosed with pheochromocytoma, which is a rare form of tumour that can be cancerous. They usually form on one of the body’s two adrenal glands, which are located above the kidneys, and approximately 10% of pheochromocytomas spread to other parts of the body. Pheochromocytomas can be dangerous because they may produce an excessive amount of the hormone adrenaline, which makes people sick, primarily by increasing their blood pressure. In Bryde’s case, what made a diagnosis challenging before surgery was that his pheochromocytoma was considered non-functional, and his urinary tests for adrenaline markers were negative. But it’s possible it was releasing low levels of adrenalin all along.

“The Ottawa Hospital is very well positioned in the study and treatment of this rare but dangerous tumour.”

— Dr. Neal Rowe

“It potentially explains all his sweating and feeling very flushed and hot as maybe he had a subclinical release of adrenaline,” confirms Dr. Nessim. Bryde also learned the tumour was cancerous.

Expertise in pheochromocytomas

Bryde with his wife and child
Bryde Fresque, his wife Natalie, and their son Edmond.

Much of the research, around the globe and here at our hospital, focuses on timely detection and treatment of pheochromocytoma. Dr. Neal Rowe is a clinical urologist at The Ottawa Hospital researching this type of tumour. “There are several known genes that increase the risk of a patient developing a pheochromocytoma. By identifying these genes in people, we can test family members, achieve early detection, and better understand the biology behind why these tumors form.” Dr. Rowe says this type of tumour affects between one to two cases per 100,000.

“Thanks to Dr. Nessim and the team at The Ottawa Hospital, I got better – I get to enjoy my life to the fullest. I got to marry the girl of my dreams and I got to become a father.”

— Bryde Fresque

“The Ottawa Hospital is very well positioned in the study and treatment of this rare but dangerous tumour. We have a collaborative group of experts in endocrinology and medical genetics in addition to a dedicated team of anesthesiologists and surgeons. With our research and development of various national initiatives, I think we’re front and centre,” says Dr. Rowe.

Moving forward, upwards, and giving back

Today, Bryde is seven years post surgery, and cancer free, with no signs of recurrence. While his recovery took time, he’s back to living his active life and truly grateful for the care he received. In fact, to raise funds and awareness for rare neuro endocrine cancers, Bryde and his wife, Natalie, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, as well as the highest pass in the world, located in Annapurna range of the Himalayas in Nepal – all while still being considered a cancer patient.

Bryde and Natalie at Uhuru Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro.
Bryde and Natalie on Mount Kilimanjaro.

“Being a cancer patient or being sick is a life-changing event. Thanks to Dr. Nessim and the team at The Ottawa Hospital, I got better – I get to enjoy my life to the fullest. I got to marry the girl of my dreams and I got to become a father.” He adds, “I honestly think if I had been anywhere else, if I had been under anyone else’s care, I probably wouldn’t be here today. I really wouldn’t.”

That’s why Bryde also holds an annual Halloween fundraising party, known as Spadinaween, to support our hospital. To date, he’s raised over $10,000 and Dr. Nessim even drops by to show her support.

The special bond between this patient and physician continues, as Bryde even enrolled to help Dr. Nessim with a global research project on sarcomas. For Bryde, it’s an honour to help other patients. “Me giving back to The Ottawa Hospital has come full circle as I was invited to partake in an international study on sarcomas with Dr. Nessim and other doctors from the UK, Italy, the States, Netherlands, and Australia – to help improve the patient experience. If I can turn a negative into a positive. I’m in!”

Seeing Bryde thrive today is what makes those long, grueling days in the operating room and the constant search for answers worthwhile. “It’s why I do my job. It’s the biggest joy and most rewarding,” says Dr. Nessim. “I feel privileged every time I’ve been able to help a patient.”


The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

Vittorio Petrin has never seen his grandchildren’s faces. The Italian draftsman started to lose his peripheral vision in the early 1980’s after his second son was born, forcing him to leave work and take an early pension. He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that causes the cells in the retina to break down. There is no cure. His vision steadily got worse until he couldn’t see any light at all.

Before his vision went dark, Vittorio spent six years building a model of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, using over 3,000 copper pieces. “It was the most beautiful place I’d seen, and I wanted to replicate it. Working on it kept my mind away from what was going to happen,” he says.

An image of Vittorio Petrin with a replica of St. Mark’s Basilica he built while losing his vision to retinitis pigmentosa.
Vittorio Petrin with a replica of St. Mark’s Basilica he built while losing his vision to retinitis pigmentosa.

“My dad was an artist. He was able to draw phenomenally, he liked taking videos. Sight was important to him,” says Vittorio’s son Dino Petrin. “He never complained about going blind, we never saw it as children. He always had a sense of humour and a strong character. He never asked for any pity, he just took it in stride.”

Millions of people in North America live with retinal diseases like retinitis pigmentosa, glaucoma, retinal ischemia and age-related macular degeneration. These diseases are poorly understood, progressive, and often untreatable.

But thanks to promising gene and cell therapies in development, Dino hopes that one day people like his father won’t have to lose their vision.

Dr. Catherine Tsilfidis' research is aimed at developing a gene therapy strategy that blocks apoptosis and slows down retinal disease progression.
Dr. Catherine Tsilfidis

“Soon we’ll be able to do what our lab has been trying to do all along – bring XIAP gene therapy into the clinic.”

– Dr. Catherine Tsilfidis

A discovery with game-changing potential

Dr. Catherine Tsilfidis can imagine the day when the first patient is treated with the retinal disease gene therapy her lab has worked on for the past 20 years. While it won’t happen tomorrow, that day is not far off.

“XIAP gene therapy is exciting because it keeps cells in the back of the eye from dying,” said Dr. Tsilfidis, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “It could slow or stop vision loss caused by many different retinal diseases.”

Dr. Tsilfidis is leading a world-class team of researchers that recently received $2.4 M from the Ontario Research Fund to develop gene and cell therapies for retinal diseases. One of their goals is to do the work needed to bring XIAP gene therapy into clinical trials, which could start in the next few years.

The time is right for gene and cell therapy

The promise of replacing defective genes and cells in the eye with healthy ones is undeniable. While these fields are still in their infancy, they are expected to grow exponentially over the next decade. Gene therapy for the eyes has particularly taken off, with Health Canada approval of the first gene therapy for a rare genetic form of vision loss in 2020.

“This research program could make Ontario a leader in the fields of both gene and stem cell therapy

– Dr. Pierre Mattar

When it comes to cell therapies, Ottawa and Toronto are major hubs in the growing area of stem cell research. As partners in the retinal research program led by Dr. Tsilfidis, UHN scientist Dr. Valerie Wallace will work on increasing the survival of transplanted stem cells in the eye, while The Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Pierre Mattar aims to develop stem cell therapies for retinal ganglion cell diseases such as glaucoma. “This research program could make Ontario a leader in the fields of both gene and stem cell therapy,” said Dr. Mattar. “By learning the best way to mass produce and integrate stem cells for retinal disease, we can advance stem cell research in other fields.”

The Ottawa Hospital's Dr. Pierre Mattar aims to develop stem cell therapies for retinal ganglion cell diseases such as glaucoma.
Dr. Pierre Mattar

Collaboration between lab researchers and clinicians key to success

The incredible challenge of bringing a basic science discovery to clinical trials requires an exceptional team. For this research program, Dr. Tsilfidis assembled a “dream team” of long-time collaborators and new partners.

As a basic scientist, Dr. Tsilfidis has always worked closely with clinicians to help ensure her research reflects patient needs.

“Ophthalmologists help us identify the most important questions to ask,” said Dr. Tsilfidis. “Our lab started working on diseases like Leber hereditary optic neuropathy and glaucoma because clinicians told us how much of a problem they were.”

Two of Dr. Tsilfidis’ long-time clinical collaborators, Drs. Stuart Coupland and Brian Leonard, are part of this new retinal research program. They are joined by retina specialists Drs. Bernard Hurley and Michael Dollin, who will assist in developing clinical trial protocols.

“Our researchers have an incredible track record of taking discoveries from the lab to the bedside,”

– Dr. Duncan Stewart

Dr. Tsilfidis’ lab and office are just down the hall from the ophthalmologists’ offices and clinics, which makes collaboration easier. This kind of co-location of scientists and clinicians has been key to The Ottawa Hospital’s success in translating discoveries from the lab bench to the patient bedside.

The highly skilled team at The Ottawa Hospital's Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre will make the clinical-grade virus to deliver gene therapy into the eye.
The highly skilled team at our Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre will make the clinical-grade virus to deliver gene therapy into the eye.

Leveraging our biomanufacturing expertise at The Ottawa Hospital

In addition to clinical experts, the team knew they needed new resources and partners to be successful.

“We’ve been very much a basic science lab in the past,” said Dr. Tsilfidis. “Now that we’re at the stage that we want to get XIAP to the clinic, we need all the help we can get.”

One missing piece was a special clinical-grade virus used to deliver the XIAP gene into the eye, known as an adeno-associated virus (AAV). Finding cost-effective sources of AAVs has been a major bottleneck for getting gene therapy trials and treatments off the ground.

Thankfully, The Ottawa Hospital is home to the Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre (BMC), a world-class facility that has manufactured more than a dozen different virus- and cell-based products for human clinical trials on four continents. Experts at the BMC were already starting to expand into AAV manufacturing when Dr. Tsilfidis approached them about collaborating on the retinal research program.

The BMC has since been working with Dr. Tsilfidis and her team to develop a process to manufacture the AAVs the team will need for Health Canada approval of the XIAP gene therapy for clinical trials.

The BMC is on track to become the first facility in in Canada to make clinical-grade AAV vectors for gene therapy studies. This new expertise will help them support other gene therapy trials with a focus on rare disease.

Learn more about our Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre.

How to plan a world-class clinical trial

In addition to the clinical-grade virus, the retinal research team needed help planning a future clinical trial of XIAP gene therapy. Fortunately, there are no shortage of clinical trial experts at The Ottawa Hospital.

“I’ve never planned a clinical trial before,” said Dr. Tsilfidis “But I knew someone who had – Dr. Dean Fergusson. I’ve always been impressed by the rigorous trails he’s helped develop. When I asked for his advice, he referred me to the Ottawa Methods Centre.”

The Ottawa Methods Centre is The Ottawa Hospital’s one-stop shop for research expertise and support. Their goal is to help all clinicians, staff and researchers at the hospital conduct the highest quality research, using the best methods. They support over 200 research projects a year, led by clinical and basic researchers alike.

“The Ottawa Methods Centre has been amazing to work with,” said Dr. Tsilfidis. “Their research methodology expertise has strengthened this research program and our funding applications.”

Drs. Manoj Lalu and Dean Fergusson along with other experts at the Ottawa Methods Centre are helping to plan a future clinical trial of gene therapy for retinal disease.
Drs. Manoj Lalu and Dean Fergusson along with other experts at the Ottawa Methods Centre are helping to plan a future clinical trial of gene therapy for retinal disease.

At the Ottawa Methods Centre, the team is leveraging the Blueprint Translational Research Group’s Excelerator program, designed to enable efficient translation of basic research discoveries to the clinic through rigorous methods and approaches. Co-led by Dr. Dean Fergusson and Dr. Manoj Lalu, the program will help design the clinical trial protocol, and support the clinical trial application to Health Canada through systematic reviews of available pre-clinical and clinical data.

Research program holds enormous promise

Tackling retinal disease will be a big challenge, but Dr. Tsilfidis has assembled an excellent team of partners both old and new to move this research program forward.

“These therapies could be life-changing. If we could cure or slow down the progression of vision loss, that would be amazing.”

– Dino Petrin

“Our researchers have an incredible track record of taking discoveries from the lab to the bedside, but it can only be done through team efforts like this one,” said Dr. Duncan Stewart, Executive Vice-President of Research at The Ottawa Hospital and professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa. “Fully leveraging our basic and clinical expertise, as well as our world-class core research resources is the key to getting new treatments to the patients who need them.”

For Dr. Tsilfidis, the excitement is palpable. “Soon we’ll be able to do what our lab has been trying to do all along – bring XIAP gene therapy into the clinic.”

Dino, a former graduate student in Dr. Tsilfidis’ lab, sees the potential of gene therapies to help people like his father. “These therapies could be life-changing,” he said, “If we could cure or slow down the progression of vision loss, that would be amazing.”

Vittorio Petrin pictured with his wife Maria Petrin
Vittorio Petrin with his wife Maria Petrin

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

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At only 20 years old, Junie immigrated to Canada from Malaysia with ambitions to study at the University of Toronto. A new life would begin — one that would entice her family to follow her in the years ahead but would be filled with adversity.

While Junie was initially drawn to Canada for her studies, a particular experience in her early years in Toronto cemented her desire to make Canada her home. She remembers a newspaper stand on a busy street in downtown Toronto. “There was a pile of newspapers and I didn’t see anybody around. I noticed people came by, picked up a paper, and dropped some money in a bowl. It was so orderly. I couldn’t believe that people were so nice.” It was the honour system and that’s what Junie loved. “I remember thinking ‘This is a kind of society I want to live in.’”

Junie in Sydney, Australia

In subsequent years, Junie got married and her parents and three siblings followed her path to Canada. Her brother settled in Ottawa and in 1996, Junie, her sister, and their husbands decided to pay a visit to him at his new home. They had a wonderful time reconnecting.

As the two couples headed home after a week, they were involved in a head-on crash just an hour outside of Ottawa. It was a devastating collision, that left the two men dead, and the two sisters badly injured. Junie remembers waking up at the crash site and asking a police officer what happened. “He told me there was an accident and I remember seeing our two husbands slumped over in the front and then I lost consciousness.” The two sisters were rushed to The Ottawa Hospital Trauma Centre.

Eastern Ontario’s only Level 1 Trauma Centre for adults

The Ottawa Hospital is home to the only Level 1 Trauma Centre for adults in eastern Ontario — which is located at the Civic Campus. We care for the most critically injured patients from across the region, including western Quebec.

The team includes a trauma team leader, as well as an anesthesiologist, a team of emergency nurses, a group of resident physicians, and respiratory therapists — this allows them to be ready for the wide variety of complex cases that they handle, or when a Code One is called.

A Code One means a patient with significant injuries is coming to the hospital and all resources gather at the Emergency Department. This code can be called for a scenario when multiple patients are injured, like the motor vehicle collision Junie and her sister were involved in, or for instances where a single patient is injured. By contrast, a large-scale incident or any other community disaster results in a Code Orange being called.

When Junie woke up again, she was in the hospital with significant internal injuries. She learned her sister had suffered multiple fractures and was then told about the unimaginable loss — Junie’s husband and brother-in-law were gone.

“I told myself if I ever get better, I just have to give back. I was just very grateful for all the excellent care that I had received.”

– Junie 

Junie was in the Intensive Care Unit for two weeks and was heavily sedated. She remembers the compassionate care she received, having to rely on others to bathe her and wash her hair. She will never forget their kindness and sensitivity. “I told myself if I ever get better, I just have to give back. I was just very grateful for all the excellent care that I had received,” says Junie.

Clinical trial changes the practice of medicine

During Junie’s early days in the hospital, her brother Lawrence observed this compassionate care firsthand as he visited daily, supporting both of his sisters during their devastating loss. He also stayed by Junie’s side while her condition was critical — she was losing a significant amount of blood.

Junie’s brother Lawrence and his wife, Catherine

Junie had multiple blood transfusions to keep her alive and was asked to participate in a clinical trial to improve when blood transfusions should be given in critical care. Lawrence was impressed by the skilled team he observed, and he signed consent for his sister to participate in the trial, in hopes that it would help her and future patients.

“This research has saved thousands of lives and improved blood transfusions for millions of people.”

– Dr. Dean Fergusson

Not only did Junie get better but her participation in this research also helped to change the practice of transfusions worldwide. Dr. Dean Fergusson, Senior Scientist and Director of the Clinical Epidemiology Program at our hospital, explains what this means for patients. “Today, patients all around the world receive blood transfusions based on a more restrictive protocol developed at The Ottawa Hospital,” he says. “Thanks to patients like Junie, we now have a much better idea of when to transfuse, how long the blood should be stored for, and how to prevent bleeding in the first place, so patients can avoid transfusions. This research has saved thousands of lives and improved blood transfusions for millions of people.”

Filled with gratitude to this day

Today, Junie is living in Toronto with her second husband and is deeply grateful to this day for the exceptional care she and her sister received. Not long after she returned home, Junie became a monthly donor to our hospital – holding true to the promise she made while she was in the hospital that she would give back to those who cared for her.

Giving is something that her late mother instilled in her — Junie’s father died when she was very young. It helped mold the person she is today. “We were a working-class family, we weren’t rich, but we persevered. My mother was just an amazing person. She was selfless. So, my siblings and I learned from that — when you receive something good, you try to pay it back in kind, especially with deeds. I think that has a lot of influence on me,” explains Junie.

Junie visiting family

Strength is an attribute Junie also has carried on from her mother. At the age of 55, Junie was diagnosed with breast cancer. Right after her breast cancer operation, she faced an ovarian cancer diagnosis. She has seen firsthand the need for philanthropy in healthcare to provide the most advanced care. Despite everything she’s faced in life, Junie describes herself as lucky. “It’s still been a good life. It’s been 13 years since I was diagnosed with those kinds of cancers and I’m still here. I am very lucky. I’m a very lucky woman.”

“That’s why, when I die, I can leave something behind to help those who cared for me. That’s my motive.”

– Junie 

Now retired after a successful career in banking, Junie thinks to the future and how she can continue to pay it forward. That’s why she’s decided to leave a gift in her will to The Ottawa Hospital so patients will have the latest technology and most advanced treatment options to save their lives, just like she experienced. “That’s why, when I die, I can leave something behind to help those who cared for me. That’s my motive.”

Why Planned Giving is important?

By leaving a gift in your will to The Ottawa Hospital, you will be helping to shape the future of healthcare. It’s an extraordinary opportunity that you will give future generations – just imagine your legacy.

We’re here to provide you with the guidance you need to leave a gift in your will to support our hospital. This is an opportunity for you to create stronger healthcare for tomorrow, with a larger gift than perhaps you thought possible – larger than those made during your lifetime. Just imagine the legacy you will leave.


The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

It’s time to take research to unprecedented heights

In the last 20 years, we’ve pushed the boundaries of healthcare and research — changing and saving lives all over the world. 

Our experts predict more research and clinical breakthroughs will happen in the next ten years than have happened over the last 50. And with your help, more of them will happen here at our hospital.  

This means improved treatments and novel therapies — and greater hope for us all. 

Dr. Duncan Stewart

“Our research is truly groundbreaking and the world is watching. Together, we can make Ottawa into a global hub for healthcare and research. Our sights are set on nothing less.”

—Dr. Duncan Stewart, Executive Vice-President Research, The Ottawa Hospital

Setting the stage for next-level research

We are proudly among the top research institutes in the country. But our impact doesn’t stop here — discoveries and cures found at our hospital will help millions of Canadians and people worldwide. 

Unique collaborations for radical results

More than 25 years ago, we had the radical idea to embed our clinicians in labs, side-by-side with our researchers. This successful approach means unprecedented research breakthroughs can quickly translate to the bedside.

9 national research networks

Our uniquely collaborative environment and outstanding research facilities draw world-leading researchers to Ottawa.

58,658 patient admissions

When traditional treatments have been exhausted, we have been able to rapidly translate research discoveries to the bedside to provide new hope.

TOH_Hospital_Colour

In the north tower of the new campus, clinical care and research will once again be fully integrated, and we will use this collaborative approach to revolutionize care.

Home of world firsts

Our Regenerative Medicine Program is unlike any other in Canada and possibly the world. Simply put, we are a world leader in stem cell research.

“If you are in computers, you go to Silicon Valley. If you are in stem cells, you need to be here in Ottawa. This is where the greatest advances are being made.”

— Dr. Bernard Thébaud, Senior Scientist in Regenerative Medicine, The Ottawa Hospital

1st clinical trial in the world of a stem cell therapy for septic shock.

1st discovery of muscle stem cells.

1st clinical trial in Canada using stem cells to treat the damaged lungs of premature babies.

1st to halt the progress of aggressive multiple sclerosis (MS) through stem cell transplants.

Harnessing biology to fight disease

Our state-of-the-art Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre (BMC) is a leader in the rapidly growing area of biotherapeutics — one of the most advanced areas of scientific innovation. 

See how we’re using stem cells, cancer-killing viruses, gene therapy, and more, to improve and save lives. 

Global impact through clinical trials

Our hospital has one of the largest and strongest clinical trials programs in the country. And our innovative trials have made a global impact with many international guidelines around trial design and reporting originating here at our hospital.

With more active clinical trials than almost anywhere else in Canada, we give patients access to novel therapies, create hope for the newly diagnosed, and establish best practices for patient care around the world.

Together, we can find new cures and make groundbreaking discoveries that save more lives.

It's time to create a better tomorrow.

About the Campaign to Create Tomorrow

The Campaign to Create Tomorrow is the largest fundraising campaign in our region’s history. It will help fulfil the most ambitious vision ever for the future of The Ottawa Hospital, focused on four critical pillars.  

INNOVATION & TECHNOLOGY

See how we’ll become the most technologically advanced hospital in the country, using the latest tools to provide the right care in the right space with the right provider.
Learn More

WORLD LEADING RESEARCH

STRENGTHENING CRITICAL SERVICES

From trauma care to cancer advancements to neuroscience, we will strengthen our critical services for patients across the region.
Learn More

The Ottawa Hospital has made great strides in addressing today’s most pressing challenges in neuroscience. We are internationally recognized for our groundbreaking research and treatment of many neurological diseases, such as stroke, neuromuscular illnesses, and Parkinson’s disease (PD).

In fact, we are one of very few centres in Canada where neurologists work hand-in-hand with basic scientists to tackle unsolved problems. Our goal is to foster new ideas and expand our range of clinical trials to quickly bring cutting-edge treatments directly to our patients. Some of the discoveries that lead to new interventions have been made here.

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s, affecting over 100,000 Canadians. The disease continues to mystify according to Dr. Michael Schlossmacher, a neurologist and the Bhargava Family Research Chair in Neurodegeneration at The Ottawa Hospital. This Chair is an example of one way philanthropists, like the Bhargava family, actively support the hospital.

“It was in 1961 when one of my teachers in Vienna first discovered the Lazarus-type effect of how dopamine therapy can suppress the symptoms of Parkinson’s. That was six decades ago, and we now understand more of the mechanisms underlying the motoric deficits, but we still don’t have a therapy in place to stop the illness in its tracks,” says Dr. Schlossmacher.

Thinking outside the box for Parkinson’s treatment

Dr. Michael Schlossmacher, The Ottawa Hospital

“If we want to treat Parkinson’s, slow it down or stop it, it will only happen through research that identifies better ways to separate subtypes of the illness and confirm targets to develop drugs for interventions.”

– Dr. Michael Schlossmacher

While progress is slow and often frustrating for patients, active research continues to probe for answers. “If we want to treat Parkinson’s, slow it down or stop it, it will only happen through research that identifies better ways to separate subtypes of the illness and confirm targets to develop drugs for interventions. Then, we’ll need to test them in the clinic and, upon demonstration of safety, apply them to a large body of patients in trials to gauge efficacy,” explains Dr. Schlossmacher. He is quick to point out that our Parkinson’s Research Consortium has made a name for itself in Canada and internationally, both on the clinical side and through basic research. Some of the clinical research activity is directed at improved integration of care delivery that we have already available today.

Philanthropy and grants play a pivotal role in moving research forward. For Dr. Schlossmacher and his team, it often allows them the opportunity to develop ideas that are largely out of the mainstream and represent ‘outside the box’ thinking. “Philanthropy has the potential to transform research activities by amplifying them and supporting talented trainees that can work on creative, new ideas.”

Does Parkinson’s start in the nose?

Over the years, research has shown more than 80% of people with Parkinson’s disease suffer from a reduced sense of smell — it often occurs years before the onset of typical movement-related symptoms. Understanding those early indicators could help in an early diagnosis for patients.

Recently, a US $9-million grant from the Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s (ASAP) initiative was announced to further explore this idea. The hope is to determine whether scent-processing nerves that connect the inside of the nose to the brain may play a role in the development of the disease. Dr. Schlossmacher is the overall leader of the effort.

Dr. Julianna Tomlinson, the scientific program manager for the international team and co-director of research in the Schlossmacher Lab at our hospital, explains the importance of this study. “For us, this is an incredible opportunity to align efforts around the world, because it brings together scientists previously anchored in the PD field with researchers who heretofore have been working outside the field of Parkinson’s.”

There are eight institutes in five countries collaborating on this global study. It’s a unique opportunity to get answers to questions that scientists here in Ottawa have been asking for quite some time, including what role environmental triggers (other than toxins) play in Parkinson’s disease as they interact with genetics. “Right now, the treatments for Parkinson’s help the symptoms but they do not stop the progression of the disease. If we can identify disease processes at an early stage, then hopefully we will be able to stop or at least slow its progression before it reaches those later stages,” says Dr. Tomlinson.

The Ottawa Hospital leads this international effort

There are five main areas that this interdisciplinary and multinational study is pursuing. Our hospital’s focus is on how the immune system relates to Parkinson’s. Specifically, laboratory models will determine how viruses and bacteria could lead to changes in the body that are linked to pathology that is seen in the diseased human brain. Understanding the function of genes that are linked to Parkinson’s and whether those genes could be functioning in the immune system, rather than just in the brain, will also be explored.

The support of our hospital is instrumental in being able to lead this international effort. “There are so many people who are involved in making this work. It’s a full team effort, including financial officers, publication experts, and colleagues with knowledge in technology transfer,” explains Dr. Tomlinson.

Ultimately, it’s about finding answers for our patients and their family members who are desperately waiting for a breakthrough. As Dr. Schlossmacher explains, that’s why the world will be watching these scientists. “From an innovation and creativity perspective, we are setting the stage as a team as to how complex research avenues could be brought together, where people work collaboratively and constructively. We don’t undermine each other; we really complement each other and enable each other.”

Making the patient connection

For nearly two decades, Kelly McDonald felt there was something physically wrong with her, but even an eventual diagnosis of fibromyalgia in her 30s didn’t provide her with the answers she needed. McDonald, a professional photographer with a sharp eye, always knew something was off. Her stance wasn’t great, she struggled with her posture, and she’d get tired easily. However, solving her health mystery was an ongoing challenge and source of frustration. “You know, people think you’re a hypochondriac,” says Kelly.

It wouldn’t be until 2021, at the age of 52, when Kelly was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In recent years, she started to develop tremors, her handwriting deteriorated, and she increasingly had a hard time getting her foot properly placed in her shoe. It was at that point, Kelly’s husband convinced her to see her doctor. Soon her right side became stiff and at times, she also felt numb. Kelly thought she was having a stroke.

“I consider myself a Parkinson’s warrior. I want to be a warrior. I want to bring more awareness to this disease, and I want people to be diagnosed earlier.”

– Kelly McDonald

Kelly McDonald
Knitting is a passion that Kelly won’t yet
give up.

When Kelly met with a neurologist at The Ottawa Hospital, tests revealed she had Parkinson’s — a diagnosis that she, surprisingly, welcomed. “I was just relieved, because I thought I was going to die from a stroke, like my dad did,” remembers Kelly.

Kelly’s father also had suffered from Parkinson’s. Moreover, soon after her diagnosis, she learned even more about her family history, namely that it also had affected the paternal side of her family. She is being cared for by Dr. David Grimes, the Head of the Division of Neurology at our hospital and an expert in movement disorders. It was Dr. Grimes who asked Kelly whether she would be interested in a study known as the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI).

Kelly admits that there were some dark days after her initial diagnosis. But in coming to terms with her new reality, she woke up one morning with a new view on her life. “I decided I have this, let’s do something good. I consider myself a Parkinson’s warrior. I want to be a warrior. I want to bring more awareness to this disease, and I want people to be diagnosed earlier,” explains Kelly.

“A lot of people start to tremor when they’re older, and some people think it’s a disease that only affects older people. But Michael J. Fox was diagnosed when he was 29.”

– Kelly McDonald

She enrolled in the PPMI study to help all those living with a Parkinson’s gene mutation, like her, that don’t realize they have it. It’s not until the shaking begins that the red flag goes up. “A lot of people start to tremor when they’re older and some people think it’s a disease that only affects older people. But Michael J. Fox was diagnosed when he was 29.”

What is PPMI?

PPMI is a landmark study led by The Michael J. Fox Foundation investigating better treatment options and prevention of the disease.

The Ottawa Hospital is one of nearly 50 sites across 12 countries participating in the expansion of the PPMI study. The team at our hospital is recruiting people recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s, who are not yet taking medication to control symptoms, as well as people age 60 and older who do not have Parkinson’s but are living with certain risk factors. Those interested in enrolling at The Ottawa Hospital can find the detailed eligibility criteria and how to contact the study team here. The Ottawa Hospital was the first Canadian study site to recruit participants when the study started to include sites outside the US; the expansion phase of the study means there could be 4,000 participants across all sites by the end of 2023.  

“We are proud to be partnering with The Michael J. Fox Foundation and other PPMI site participants, and we are very grateful to the study’s dedicated volunteers who are helping us to move toward a future of disease prevention and better options for those living with Parkinson’s.” 

– Dr. Tiago Mestre

Dr. Tiago Mestre is the principal investigator at our hospital, and he explains initial discoveries from this global study have already had an impact. “Early findings have revolutionized the understanding of Parkinson’s biology and the design of clinical trials testing potential new treatments, but there is much more to uncover. We are proud to be partnering with The Michael J. Fox Foundation and other PPMI site participants, and we are very grateful to the study’s dedicated volunteers who are helping us to move toward a future of disease prevention and better options for those living with Parkinson’s.”  

Kelly joined the study mid-2021 and she’ll be monitored for 13 years. She says it’s been an amazing experience so far and she’d encourage others to consider joining. “Not only do you gain information about yourself and current information on your condition, but a study like this can help other people in the future. It also seems like Parkinson’s runs in my family. I could learn important information that could help my sister or my niece.” says Kelly.

For now, she’s looking ahead and doesn’t lose focus, whether it’s on her photography or as a warrior combatting Parkinson’s.


The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.