Promising new projects thanks to donor-supported COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund

More than $2 million has been generously donated by the community in support of our COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. Below are the latest projects that have received seed funding thanks to donor support.

Amidst exciting new updates from research projects supported in earlier rounds of funding from the COVID-19 Emergency Respond Fund, two new projects are now getting underway. Thanks to donor support from our generous community, more than 50 research and innovation projects are in progress and are helping us better understand and address COVID-19.

COVID-19 and rheumatoid arthritis: using big data to
understand risks and improve treatments

Dr. Sibel Aydin, The Ottawa Hospital
Dr. Sibel Aydin

With more than 30 million infections worldwide, researchers now have access to massive amounts of data to try to understand why COVID-19 causes severe illness in some people and mild or no symptoms in others. Factors like age, hypertension and obesity clearly play a role, and it is possible that certain immune disorders may also have an impact. Dr. Sibel Aydin is using a big data approach to determine if people with the immune disorder rheumatoid arthritis are more or less likely to get severely ill with COVID-19. Harnessing data from ICES and the Ontario Best Practice Research Initiative, her team will also look at the impact of immune-suppressing drugs that are commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. This research could improve our global understanding of COVID-19 and lead to better treatments for people with both COVID-19 and rheumatoid arthritis.

Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on women

Dr. Innie Chen, The Ottawa Hospital
Dr. Innie Chen

Dr. Innie Chen is leading research to understand the impact of COVID-19 on women, thanks to seed funding through the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

COVID-19 is affecting women in many ways, from increased caregiving responsibilities to increased risks of domestic violence. Women are also more likely to work in healthcare jobs that have a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19. Finally, women may be negatively affected by delays in access to health care associated with COVID-19.

Dr. Chen has assembled an internationally recognized team that will help understand and address this challenge by developing core outcomes for women’s health equity during Covid-19. The researchers will perform a systematic search of the literature and assemble a multidisciplinary panel of community patient partners and healthcare workers to identify the key issues in women’s health during the pandemic. This information will lead to evidence-based strategies to mitigate gender-based impacts and help improve the lives of women during the pandemic.

Keep checking back to read updates on these and other COVID-19 research and innovation projects supported by donors.

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

Donate today to support the groundbreaking research and innovation projects of tomorrow.

More Inspiring Stories

Breast cancer patients benefit from Ottawa-based study
Ottawa study is changing the standard of care for breast cancer patients world-wide.
From leukemia patient to multi-marathoner – with a walker
Leukemia patient, Bob Hardy, had a 40% chance of survival. But hope was restored after treatment at The Ottawa Hospital.
Defying the odds in the battle against pancreatic cancer
Sindy Hooper has always been healthy. With no family history of cancer, she and her husband were shocked at the results from an emergency ultrasound at The Ottawa Hospital.

Breast cancer patients benefit from Ottawa-based study

Ottawa study is changing the standard of care for breast cancer patients world-wide.

The study that is changing breast cancer treatment around the world

There is such deep love in Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire’s eyes when she looks at her three young children. But there is something else, too: fear. Fear that one or even both of her daughters will develop the same aggressive breast cancer she’s had. So, when an opportunity arose to participate in a clinical trial through The Ottawa Hospital’s REthinking Clinical Trials (REaCT) program, she readily agreed.

Gina Mertikas, centre, and her family
Gina and family

“I’m really big on clinical trials,” says Gina, “so I had no hesitation helping…and I trusted Dr. Clemons.”

Dr. Mark Clemons, scientist and oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital, was Gina’s medical oncologist and also the one who launched REaCT in 2014, together with Dr. Dean Fergusson, senior scientist and Director of The Ottawa Hospital’s Clinical Epidemiology Program, and others. The purpose of REaCT was to make enrollment in clinical trials easier for cancer patients. The more patients who enroll, the more that can be learned, which leads to better treatments and practices.

“When you think the most common killer is now cancer,” says Dr. Clemons, “and only 3% of patients are involved in trials, it’s quite shocking. Patients are desperate to help, not just for themselves but for their children. They want their children to have better treatments if this happens to them.”

Study focused on safer care, less cost, fewer hospital visits

Gina participated in a study focused on a drug called filgrastim, which boosts the production of infection-fighting white blood cells. People with early-stage breast cancer often receive daily injections of the drug at the start of every cycle of chemotherapy, anywhere from five doses to seven to 10. Many cancer patients struggle with both the cost of the drugs, at more than $200 per injection, and the side effects.

“This is an incredibly expensive drug,” says Dr. Clemons, “but often patients feel horrible with it. It makes you feel miserable.”

Up to this point, there had been conflicting debate on how many injections worked best. So, after reviewing all the evidence and surveying doctors and patients, Dr. Clemons and his colleagues launched a clinical trial to find out, enrolling 466 patients from seven Canadian cancer centres.

Gina was among those patients, giving herself a daily shot of filgrastim 10 days in a row after each of her three rounds of chemotherapy.

Gina presenting a cheque to Dr. Clemons in support of the REaCT program at The Ottawa Hospital

“I’m so thankful I was part of this trial”

Gina says she had no hesitation volunteering to be part of this trial, “because I’m able to help future breast cancer patients,” adding, “We are helping the future generation with every trial we do, so I’m happy they asked me.”

She’s happy, too, with the results of the study, published in Annals of Oncology, which have helped change care globally. Researchers discovered that five doses of filgrastim are just as good as seven to 10 doses in terms of preventing infections. And when they looked at treatment-related hospitalizations, they found that five doses are better: patients who received five doses had a 3.3 percent chance of hospitalization for side-effects compared to 10.9 percent for people who had seven to 10 doses, a difference of more than three-fold.

“I believe this is how we will find the cure for cancer.”

– Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire

Results change global standard of care

“This study is already changing practice around the world,” says Dr. Clemons. “It is making our patients healthier and giving them more time with loved ones by reducing unnecessary hospital visits. It is also saving our healthcare system millions of dollars every year.”

The REaCT team wants to take this research one step further to find out whether even fewer doses can be prescribed. They have just applied for funding to start that study and are focused on several other clinical trials as well. With more than 2,700 patients participating in 17 trials in 15 centres across Canada, REaCT is now the largest cancer clinical trials program of its kind in the country.

“By thinking differently and using innovative approaches, we are efficiently answering some of the most important questions for patients and for our healthcare system,” says Dr. Fergusson. “The Ottawa Hospital is a leader in this kind of innovative research and our patients are among the first to benefit.”

Gina knows that well. She’s participated in two other clinical trials through REaCT and has become an ardent fundraiser, securing more than $25,000 for cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital.

“I believe this is how we will find the cure for cancer,” she says, “so we really need to continue to support this avenue, to support the next generation of cancer patients.”

Drs Mark Clemons and Dean Fergusson developed the Rethinking Clinical Trials or REaCT program
Drs. Mark Clemons and Dean Fergusson developed the Rethinking Clinical Trials or REaCT program

“This study is already changing practice around the world. It is making our patients healthier and giving them more time with loved ones.”

– Dr. Mark Clemons

“The Ottawa Hospital is a leader in this kind of innovative research and our patients are among the first to benefit.”

— Dr. Dean Fergusson

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

Donate today to give more patients like Gina access to groundbreaking clinical trials.

More Inspiring Stories

Promising new projects thanks to donor-supported COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund
With more than $2 million donated to combat COVID-19, two new research projects have received receiving funding thanks to community support.
From leukemia patient to multi-marathoner – with a walker
Leukemia patient, Bob Hardy, had a 40% chance of survival. But hope was restored after treatment at The Ottawa Hospital.
Defying the odds in the battle against pancreatic cancer
Sindy Hooper has always been healthy. With no family history of cancer, she and her husband were shocked at the results from an emergency ultrasound at The Ottawa Hospital.

A Conversation with the CEO

Join us for this exclusive opportunity to meet the new President and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital, Cameron Love. You’ll hear Cameron’s vision and strategy for the future of our hospitalYou’ll also get a glimpse of the new Civic development site on Carling Avenue. 

Our Speakers

Cameron Love, President & CEO of The Ottawa Hospital

Cameron Love:

Cameron Love is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Ottawa Hospital. He took on this leadership role as of July 1, 2020, in an unprecedented time as Ontario’s health system adapts to new a service model in the wake of COVID-19.  Through this experience, and as Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer of The Ottawa Hospital since 2014, he was responsible for the leadership and oversight of programs and services across the hospital, and their integration into regional programs throughout the Champlain region. He’s been with TOH for over twenty years.

Evan Solomon

Evan Solomon:

Evan Solomon is Host of CTV’s weekly political program, Question Period and host of Power Play. He also hosts a daily radio program on 580 CFRA. Solomon is a two-time Gemini Award-winner and best-selling author who has covered federal and provincial politics, news, and current events for more than 15 years.

From leukemia patient to multi-marathoner – with a walker

Leukemia, radiation and chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, and a blood clot in his intestine and neck haven’t slowed Robert Hardy down. In fact, he feels stronger than ever and is ‘walker-running’ marathons in support of The Ottawa Hospital.

Robert (Bob) Hardy has been in a fight for his life for more than 20 years. From a bone marrow transplant for leukemia, to a blood clot in his intestine and his neck, it seems nothing can slow him down. In fact, thanks to lifesaving care at The Ottawa Hospital, he’s stronger than ever and unwavering in his desire to compete in some of the most renowned marathons around the world — with his walker. Beating his personal best time, year after year, you wouldn’t suspect that this ‘Walker-Runner’ initially had only a 40% chance of survival.

A startling diagnosis

There was a time many years ago when Bob believed he only had six months to live. Feeling slightly fatigued, but healthy overall, he went for a routine physical. When his examination results returned, Bob received startling news. At only 46 years old, and long before experiencing any side effects of the disease, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Bob and his wife, Vittorina, were stunned. All they could think about was how they would tell their two young girls, Shannon and Leah, who at the time were only 13 and nine. “It was a really big shock for all of us. The thought of having to tell our children wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t something I was willing to hide from them either,” said Bob.

But if you’re looking for a woe-is-me attitude, you won’t get it from Bob. Even a diagnosis of this magnitude couldn’t bring him down. “When I told my youngest daughter, Leah, about my diagnosis,” said Bob, “she told me ‘you’re too strong to die, dad.’” That was the encouragement Bob needed to hear. It was her words that motivated him to fight back and beat the disease.

Robert Hardy, in 1997, standing by the water
Robert Hardy in 1997.

 

A fight for his life

Up until Bob’s leukemia diagnosis he was studying jiu-jitsu – and fit as ever. But while he waited for a match donor for a bone marrow transplant, the medication, interferon, that doctors prescribed to maintain his health was making him weak. Bob was struggling to continue with his training. “I wanted to get my black belt before undergoing my bone marrow transplant,” expressed Bob. He felt a black belt would give him the confidence he needed to begin the long road to healing and recovery. Knowing just how much this milestone would mean to Bob, his doctors allowed him to temporarily discontinue taking interferon for two months prior to Bob’s black belt test, so that he could continue training for the big day. And when that day came, he got his black belt – with honours. It was only then that he felt ready for his bone marrow transplant and the ups and downs that would follow.

A perfect match

After a year of taking interferon, a six-antigen match donor for the bone marrow transplant was found. At the time, performing a bone marrow transplant using an unrelated donor was still relatively new. But researchers discovered that patients can have a match donor outside of their family. “It isn’t common for two people to have the same set of six antigens if they aren’t blood related. I was lucky. They found a perfect match,” explained Bob. More recently, however, advances in research have allowed our experts to perform a transplant using an incompatible donor, significantly reducing the time patients must wait for a match donor. “What this means is that, where once many did not have a donor, now almost everyone has one,” explained Dr. Huebsch. “This research is truly groundbreaking.”

Robert Hardy during his leukemia treatment
Robert Hardy undergoing treatment for leukemia.

With a donor ready to help, the pre-transplant treatment of high doses of chemotherapy and radiation to suppress Bob’s immune system began. Four weeks later, his immune system was primed to receive the bone marrow transplant. He underwent this procedure at The Ottawa Hospital, and remained in our care for three weeks to ensure the transplanted healthy cells were multiplying – and they were.

Bone marrow is the soft, fatty tissue inside your bones, which produces blood cells. A transplant, inserted into the blood stream through a catheter, replaces the unhealthy blood forming cells (stem cells) with healthy ones.

Although doctors wanted Bob to remain in hospital for a few weeks post treatment, he was able to go home for the majority of his recovery. In fact, Bob benefited from our innovative outpatient bone marrow transplant program that has allowed thousands of patients to be treated and recover more conveniently from home. This program was one of the first in Canada and, since its inception, our patients have been surrounded by loved ones throughout recovery.

Thrombosis expertise in Ottawa

Over the course of the next two years, Bob was in and out of the hospital. “The first two years were the hardest. I had a lot of side effects from my treatment,” said Bob. One of the most severe side effects Bob experienced was blood clotting. The first to appear was in his stomach and a second in his neck. Cancer patients are often at greater risk of blood clotting as chemotherapy is hard on the veins. Approximately one in every twenty cancer patients will experience blood clotting – often a life-threatening complication. But Bob was in good hands. He benefited from the development of a tool to help diagnose blood clots quickly, known as the Wells Rule, after Dr. Phil Wells, an expert at The Ottawa Hospital. This tool is now used in emergency rooms and taught in medical schools around the world.

“We have one of the best thrombosis departments in Canada, attracting experts in the field from across the globe.” – Dr. Marc Carrier

Researchers have since implemented a comprehensive program for managing blood-thinning medications for patients at higher risk of developing blood clots, including cancer patients like Bob. This program has ensured that patients at our hospital are more likely to have optimal blood thickness, and less likely to develop blood clots.

More recently, our experts have developed a system to identify the likelihood that a cancer patient will develop blood clots. Although this was not yet available at the time of Bob’s diagnosis, this innovative tool can classify newly diagnosed cancer patients as being at greater risk and they can receive personalized care based on their unique circumstance to prevent blood clotting. “We have one of the best thrombosis departments in Canada, attracting experts in the field from across the globe,” said Dr. Carrier, Chief, Division of Hematology. “Our highly specialized and dedicated researchers are developing groundbreaking procedures that demonstrate our commitment to continuously moving research and treatments forward, so that we can continue to provide exceptional care to each patient that walks through our doors,” said Dr. Carrier.

World-class care in Hematology

Throughout Bob’s treatment, he was cared for through The Ottawa Hospital Hematology and Thrombosis Program, one of the best and largest in Canada. Unlike many other hospitals, where patients must travel to different hospital departments and satellite locations to receive treatment, our unique program provides centralized care for patients with diseases of the lymph glands, blood, and bone marrow for patients across eastern Ontario and beyond.

“We are among the best. Ottawa is at the centre of all sorts of blood transfusion medicine and we’re one of the leading centers in the world for doing, and researching, transplantation for life threatening diseases.” – Dr. Lothar Huebsch

Robert Hardy and Dr. Lothar Huebsch in 2001.
Robert Hardy with Dr. Lothar Huebsch, 2001.

The program, which has attracted leading researchers from around the world, is renowned for the development and advancement of world-first procedures that are changing lives. “We are among the best,” explained Dr. Huebsch, Clinical Hematologist and former head of hematologic oncology. “Ottawa is at the centre of all sorts of blood transfusion medicine and we’re one of the first in the world to successfully perform transplantations for life threatening diseases.” Our Hematology and Thrombosis Program has led the way for decades, researching transplant techniques with other illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, autoimmune diseases, and lymphoma. “This is the kind of research we’ve done for 25 years, and we are one of the leading centers in the world for doing these transplants in the outpatient setting, rather than in a high intensity ward as an impatient,” said Dr. Huebsch.

Road to recovery inspires ‘walker-running’

Bob Hardy, walker running
Robert Hardy walker-running.

With so much time spent in and out of hospital throughout his treatment, Bob needed something to do to keep himself busy while he recovered. So, he got creative. “A few of us used to take our IV polls and race them down the hallways. The nurses couldn’t believe how fast we were moving!” What Bob didn’t realize at the time was racing IV polls would later spark aspirations to participate in some of the most renowned marathons.

Following treatment for the blood clot in his neck, Bob lost his sense of balance. Although he can walk short distances without an aid, he’s unable to run or walk long distance. That’s when Vittorina suggested he get a walker. “At first, I was hesitant about using a walker, but then I realized how fast I could move!” said Bob. And so began his passion for ‘walker-running’.

Bob started his walker-running career participating in the Wobbly Walker-Walk-a-thon, but soon shifted into high gear signing up as a marathoner in Run for a Reason at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. His marathons not only accomplished a personal goal, but also raised funds in support of The Ottawa Hospital.

A new appreciation for life

Bob’s road to recovery hasn’t been an easy one, but there hasn’t been a day he’s felt sorry for himself. Over the years he started to get stronger and complications were fewer and far between. “I am so thankful for the treatment I received. The nurses and my doctors were outstanding – absolutely incredible,” said Bob. “I’m here today, pursuing my passion for walker-runner marathons, because of them. They saved my life.”

Of course, there are still some days that Bob feels more run down than others. On those days he tries to take a walk to reminisce on how far he’s come in his recovery. “I know what it takes to get over things and to get through things. Not only did I have the very best care at The Ottawa Hospital, I had something to live for. I was able to watch my girls grow up. And now, here I am at age 69, almost 70, I’ve overcome countless obstacles and have jumped over hurdles, and I’m really quite happy with my life. I’m really very happy.”

“I am so thankful for the treatment I received. The nurses and my doctors were outstanding – absolutely incredible.” – Bob Hardy

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

Your support today, will help patients like Robert keep moving.

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Defying the odds in the battle against pancreatic cancer

As a seven-year pancreatic cancer survivor, Sindy Hooper continues to defy the odds. She’s putting her faith in cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital to save her life again one day.

Devastated and shocked – that’s how Sindy Hooper and her family reacted to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2013. Especially considering pancreatic cancer survivor rates are so low. The diagnosis came at a time when Sindy would have described herself as being in the best shape of her life. But suddenly, she was facing the fight of her life, and she looked to the specialized cancer treatment and research at The Ottawa Hospital to help her fight back.

In the months leading up to Sindy’s diagnosis, she had been feeling great. She had completed her first Ironman in August 2012, and that fall she was training to complete another one. Then, in December, she started experiencing discomfort in her upper abdomen and pain in her upper back. However, towards the end of the month her skin started to get very itchy, she became a lot more tired, and she started to lose a little bit of weight. The day before her diagnosis, she woke up and her eyes were yellow. She was jaundiced.

Sindy’s husband, Dr. Jon Hooper, an ICU physician at The Ottawa Hospital initially thought it could be gallstones. The couple headed to hospital unprepared for what they were about to learn. Later that day, an ultrasound would reveal it was pancreatic cancer. “We couldn’t believe the news. I was relatively young. I had just turned 50. I was in the best shape of my life. I had no family history of cancer whatsoever,” says Sindy. Even more alarming were the survival rate statistics.

An aggressive, potent cancer

The pancreas is part of the endocrine system, a group of glands and cells that make and release hormones into the blood, controlling growth, reproduction, sleep, hunger, and metabolism. The cells in the pancreas normally make and release digestive juices to help break down food.

Pancreatic cancer starts in the cells of the pancreas. A malignant tumour of the pancreas is a group of cancer cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread to other parts of the body. There has been little progress in the fight against pancreatic cancer in the last 40 years.

The five-year survival rate is only eight percent. The average survival is six months and 75 percent of the people diagnosed with this form of cancer die within the first year.

“We see what people are going through and how we need to do better than we’re doing so far. It gives us a focus and purpose because we know here’s an urgent need for new and better therapies.” – Dr. John Bell

Pancreatic cancers are resistant to most kinds of therapy. The cells have a biology that scientists don’t completely understand, which makes them hard to detect early and hard to treat with conventional kinds of therapies that are currently available. Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are working to offer hope to pancreatic cancer patients and while she didn’t realize it at the time, this would become very important to Sindy and her journey.

Ready for specialized care

With the alarming news of the diagnosis, Sindy prayed to make it to one year. Her team at The Ottawa Hospital developed a three-pronged care plan. “I am very thankful for having such amazing care close to home – really world-class care,” says Sindy.

The treatment would begin with Whipple surgery. “It’s a seven-hour operation – it’s huge. It can only be done in very specialized centres. I was very fortunate to have that done here in Ottawa.”

In fact, The Ottawa Hospital is one of the few hospitals in Canada to offer this type of surgery. It is used to remove tumours in the head of the pancreas or in the opening of the pancreatic duct. A team that specializes in surgery of the pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and bile duct work together to support the patient through the operation.

Sindy in hospital recovering from Whipple surgery.
Sindy in hospital recovering from Whipple surgery.

In Sindy’s case, the complex surgery removed half of her pancreas, half of her stomach, her gall bladder, bile duct, duodenum, and the tumour. She was in hospital for ten days and then recovered at home for the next five weeks. “Just as I started feeling better in mid-February, I started chemotherapy. I went through 18 rounds of chemo that took me to September. There was also 28 days of radiation in between,” remembers Sindy.

“Whipple surgery is a seven hour operation – it’s huge. It can only be done in very specialized centres. I was very fortunate to have that done here in Ottawa.”
– Sindy Hooper

She was able to withstand the effects of chemo and radiation very well. Her doctors attributed that to the great shape Sindy was in. It helped her power through the treatments. “Through all my treatments, I was still training for Ironman Canada.”

Powering through to Ironman Canada

Sindy Hooper competing in 2013 Ironman Canada during cancer treatment
Sindy crossing the finish line at Ironman Canada in 2013.

Feeling good, Sindy and Jon booked a trip to Whistler, B.C. to take on Ironman Canada in August 2013, even though Sindy was still undergoing chemo treatment. She wasn’t expecting to complete the biking or running portion, but Sindy felt she could tackle the 3.86 km swim. In fact, she not only finished the swim, but also the 180 km bike, and the marathon. “We started the marathon, and it was miraculous. I just felt so good that day. I had lots of energy.”

In the end, together, they finished the Ironman at 11:37 p.m. – 23 minutes before the cut off. But it was bigger than just crossing the finish line. Sindy’s incredible strength to power through an Ironman in the middle of chemotherapy treatment attracted significant media attention. She not only increased awareness for pancreatic cancer, but she also raised $50,000 for cancer research. “Completing the Ironman, raising awareness, and all that money was an absolute gift in the midst of everything I was going through,” says Sindy.

Fundraising for all cancer patients

That $50,000 was just the starting point for this crusader. Sindy has dedicated herself to fundraising for cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital since 2014 through Run for a Reason at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. Her running team is the MEMC crew (Making Every Moment Count). She tries to instill her passion for life in other people and not take things for granted. Along the way, she’s raised over $225,400 for cancer research.

Sindy does it not only for herself but also for other patients. “Cancer research is going to one day save my life again, I’m sure of it.”

“Cancer research saves lives. That’s the bottom line. Whether it’s finding new treatments or early detection methods so cancers can be picked up earlier and treated more effectively – cancer research really does save lives.” – Sindy Hooper

Sindy running in support of cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital
Sindy participating at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend in support of The Ottawa Hospital.

For Dr. John Bell, a senior scientist, who’s been investigating this complicated disease for decades at The Ottawa Hospital, it’s patients like Sindy who inspire him and his team of researchers. “I’m really privileged to have a lab at the Cancer Centre. That means every day, I get to see the people we are trying to help, like Sindy, who we want to have a good quality of life and a long life.”

Dr. Bell adds it’s those patients who push him to find answers and that elusive cure.“We see what people are going through and how we need to do better than we’re doing so far. It gives us a focus and purpose because we know there’s an urgent need for new and better therapies.”

One way to find those answers is through clinical trials. And it’s not lost on Dr. Bell that the patients who participate are both courageous and altruistic. “Every patient seems to say the same thing when I speak with them: ‘I don’t know if this is going to work for me, but I hope you learn something from it so that I can help somebody else.’ That’s, really what we get inspired by, that sort of attitude. Sindy has that attitude for sure.”

Finding hope for pancreatic cancer patients

Sindy with Dr. John Bell at The Ottawa Hospital
Sindy meeting Dr. John Bell in his lab.

While treatment options for pancreatic cancer are still limited, there is hope. Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are leading the world in developing viruses that can attack cancer cells without harming normal cells. These viruses have been tested in clinical trials for other types of cancer, and Dr. Bell’s team is currently working in the laboratory to see if they can be customized for pancreatic cancer. Dr. Bell says that, “absolutely,” the findings from those previous trials could be used in future pancreatic cancer patients.

“It really is I think a burgeoning field, and I like to think we were critical in getting this started.”

As Sindy continues to put her faith in what this research will have to offer in the future, she has a simple message for Dr. Bell and his team. “Thank you for the work that you’re doing.”

“Keep working really hard because there’s a lot of people out there, like me, who are relying on research to find new, better treatments and hopefully one day a cure.”
– Sindy Hooper

2020 brings a new health concern

Even before the emergence of COVID-19, 2020 offered a new challenge to Sindy. On a flight to Hawaii, last winter she, started experiencing intense gastrointestinal pain. As soon as her flight landed, she went straight to the hospital and learned she had a partial obstruction in her GI tract. While she started to feel better, her surgeons back at The Ottawa Hospital encouraged her to return home as they were the best equipped to handle her complicated case should she develop another obstruction and she need surgery.

Back home, Sindy continued to have severe episodes of pain, developed a fever, and then a blood infection. By mid-April, COVID-19 had arrived in Ottawa and doctors were hesitant to operate, but the pain became so severe they had no choice.

Surgeons discovered a significant number of adhesions in the area of her obstructions and removed them. Sindy admits it was a stressful time being in hospital during a global pandemic. “It was so scary by myself – not having my husband there for me.”

Although, she gives credit to the incredible staff who were at her bedside for six days. “I have to say everybody was going above and beyond to make the patients feel comfortable during this time. I was impressed.”

Making plans for the future

Today, Sindy celebrates as a seven-year pancreatic cancer survivor and takes nothing for granted. After she got past that first year of survival, she prayed for two years of survival. “Every year that has passed is just completely incredible to me, Jon, and my sons.”

Every six months Sindy returns to The Ottawa Hospital for a CT scan. While it’s stressful waiting for the results, so far, each scan has resulted in good news, allowing Sindy and Jon to make plans for the next year.

Sindy biking at the International Triathlon Union
Competing at the ITU (International Triathlon Union) Olympic Distance World Championship in Cozumel, Mexico in 2016.

This year, that plan included welcoming a new member of the family – Lexey, a French Bulldog – filling their home with joy. Sindy’s plans also include more running, swimming, and biking. She’s feeling strong again after her surgery, back to training for a 50 km Ultramarines Run in November and a triathlon next summer. She continues to look to the future.

“I’m just so amazed to be defying these odds and to get to continue living, enjoying and loving life.” – Sindy Hooper

You could say that Sindy is making every moment count.

Listen to Sindy Hooper’s story in her own words during a guest appearance on Pulse: The Ottawa Hospital Foundation Podcast.

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

Your donation can give patients like Sindy hope for better treatments in the future.

More Inspiring Stories

Promising new projects thanks to donor-supported COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund
With more than $2 million donated to combat COVID-19, two new research projects have received receiving funding thanks to community support.
Trauma and healing after explosion in Afghanistan
Bushra Saeed-Khan’s tour in Afghanistan was cut short after an IED nearly took her life. The Ottawa Hospital was ready to help her heal.
Breast cancer patients benefit from Ottawa-based study
Ottawa study is changing the standard of care for breast cancer patients world-wide.

For the First Time in 19 Years, The Ottawa Hospital’s President’s Breakfast Goes Virtual

SEPTEMBER 1, 2020 OTTAWA, ON – If you thought The Ottawa Hospital might postpone its annual President’s Breakfast in light of COVID-19, you’re in for a wake-up call. That’s because today, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation announced its influential fundraiser is once again blazing a new trail. For the first time since its inception in 2001, the annual one-hour event will be held virtually on Tuesday, September 29, from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. in a groundbreaking online adaptation of the traditional in-person gathering.

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • This year’s event will be held virtually on Tuesday, September 29, from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.
  • Since 2001, The Ottawa Hospital’s annual President’s Breakfast has raised nearly $12 million toward leading-edge research, facilities, equipment, and tools to improve patient care.
  • The President’s Breakfast is a one-hour coming-together of guest speakers, front-line healthcare researchers, patients whose lives have been saved, and more than 500 dedicated supporters to raise critical funds for The Ottawa Hospital.

While COVID-19 has put events of this nature on hold, the need to raise crucial funds for research and patient care not only continues, it is amplified by the pandemic.

As has become tradition, the President’s Breakfast will spotlight some of the year’s most incredible, inspiring stories of hope and compassion to an audience of more than 500 dedicated supporters – including lead sponsor Doherty and Associates.

“We may not be able to physically be together in the same room, but we can still gather as a community and connect via live streaming video for this great cause,” said Tim Kluke, President and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital Foundation. “Make no mistake, this will not look or sound anything like your run-of-the-mill video conference call. We’re employing state-of-the-art technology to make it the next best thing to an in-person event. It is an extremely important component of our yearly fundraising calendar, and so we have worked hard to create a dynamic program of guest speakers, special announcements, and a few surprises to make sure we stay true to the innovative spirit for which the President’s Breakfast is well known.”

The President’s Breakfast will also mark the first official address from Cameron Love, the new President and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital, as part of its itinerary of guest speakers and former patients including Stuntman Stu, who recently underwent his second bone marrow transplant at The Ottawa Hospital in his battle with leukemia.

With a rich history, this event has raised close to $12 million over the past 18 years in support of healthcare in Ottawa. In 2018 alone, more than $800,000 was donated in just one inspiring morning. Viewers can donate online in a variety of ways: with a monthly gift, a multi-year commitment, or a one-time tribute donation in support of The Ottawa Hospital.

The President’s Breakfast in support of The Ottawa Hospital will happen Tuesday, September 29, from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. To RSVP or become an Ambassador, please visit ohfoundation.ca/presidents-breakfast-2020.

About The Ottawa Hospital:

The Ottawa Hospital is one of Canada’s top learning and research hospitals, where excellent care is inspired by research and driven by compassion. As the third-largest employer in Ottawa, our support staff, researchers, nurses, physicians, and volunteers never stop seeking solutions to the most complex healthcare challenges.

Our multi-campus hospital, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, attracts some of the most influential scientific minds from around the world. Our focus on learning and research leads to new techniques and discoveries that are adopted globally to improve patient care.

We are the Regional Trauma Centre for eastern Ontario and have been accredited with Exemplary Standing for healthcare delivery — the highest rating from Accreditation Canada. We are also home to world-leading research programs focused on cancer therapeutics, neuroscience, regenerative medicine, chronic disease, and practice-changing research.

Backed by generous support from the community, we are committed to providing the world-class, compassionate care we would want for our loved ones.

For more information about The Ottawa Hospital, visit ohfoundation.ca.

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Canadian armwrestling legend wins championship after arthroscopic surgery

One look at Devon Larratt’s incredibly large biceps and you might mistake him for a superhero. While he’s not a superhero, he is a world champion with a story that is anything but ordinary. And his climb to the top involved multiple surgeries, intensive rehab, and sheer determination.

It would have been hard not to be impressed while watching Devon Larratt triumphing as the Open World Champion, in both his left and right arm, in the World Armwrestling League. Chants and loud cheers extended from the crowd as Devon, a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, faced his opponents time and again from 2008 to 2012. What Devon did not know at this time was that all of the intense training it took to get him on the world stage was leading to the development of debilitating arthritis that was going to jeopardize his greatest passion and career. His only hope to regain his former glory was surgery at The Ottawa Hospital to restore strength in his arms.

A family affair

Devon has been interested in armwrestling for most of his life. At age 18, he entered his first tournament and has represented Canada at international competitions ever since, winning many World Championships. An impressive feat for someone who initially took up armwrestling as a hobby when he was only five years old.

One could say that for the Larratt’s, armwrestling is a family affair. “I grew up armwrestling with my grandmother,” said Devon. “The rumour around the family was that she was the Alberta women’s champion. It’s because of her that I started armwrestling.”

Devon Larratt sitting on an OR table
Devon Larratt, Canadian armwrestling champion

 

Military force

It wasn’t until Devon joined the Canadian Armed Forces that he got serious about his training. Eighteen years in the military provided him with the opportunity to get in the best shape of his life. “If I wasn’t on a mission,” said Devon, “I was pumping iron.”

Even while on tour overseas in Afghanistan, armwrestling played a large role in his life. Competing against fellow troops, he gained the experience he needed to one day earn himself the title as one of the best armwrestlers in the world.

Injury puts dreams on holdelbow xray

Like many athletes, Devon suffered injuries that put his dreams and career in jeopardy. Armwrestling is incredibly demanding on tendons and joints. Years of trauma caused by armwrestling led to the development of osteoarthritis, with extra bone build up in his elbows.

“Both my left and right elbow joints were degraded to a point where I was in constant pain,” remembers Devon. Increased pressure in the elbow joints from abnormal mechanics while armwrestling led to a build up of extra bone in areas it shouldn’t grow. Devon was unaware this abnormal bone was breaking apart, creating loose fragments in his joints.

At the same time, Devon’s arthritis caused chronic inflammation between his elbow joint bones, eroding the cartilage in the joint and causing friction between the elbow bones. This not only caused him significant pain but it also greatly impacted his range of motion.

Unable to compete to the best of his ability and in great pain, Devon was referred to a shoulder and elbow specialist at The Ottawa Hospital.

Specialized technique

Devon’s treatment would involve three surgeries: two operations in his right elbow and one in his left. Due to the nature of his work as an armwrestler and in the military, the surgical team made use of a specialized technique – elbow arthroscopy, a minimally invasive surgery. This technique involves inserting a fibre-optic video camera through a small incision. The view inside the joint is then transmitted to a high-definition video monitor, resulting in a more precise operation. As a minimally invasive surgery, this technique preserves as much of the muscles and tendons in the elbow area as possible.

Over one cup of stray floating bone fragments and a golf-ball-size piece of abnormal bone was extracted from Devon’s elbow. Once the bone was removed, the elbow was recontoured and sculpted to correct any deformity and to restore the normal anatomy of the joint.

Expertise right here in Ottawa

Prior to the development of arthroscopic techniques, surgery involved making a long incision, cutting through layers of muscle to get to the joint. This often resulted in a slower healing time and would require a longer rehabilitation period.

Though there had been many advancements in elbow arthroscopy, until a decade ago, this was a specialty procedure not yet available in Ottawa. But a focused effort on the improvement of minimally invasive techniques at our hospital attracted skilled physicians from across the globe.

Now, with local expertise in elbows and shoulders, coupled with the latest equipment and technology, patients can be treated right here at home, in Ottawa. It is in part thanks to donor support that the latest tools were brought to The Ottawa Hospital to allow arthroscopic procedures to take place.

The potential of stem cells

In the future, athletes like Devon may be able to avoid surgery altogether by benefiting from the healing power of stem cells.

Research at The Ottawa Hospital is underway to better understand how bone regenerates, repairs, and heals. Dr. Daniel Coutu, inaugural Research Chair in Regenerative Orthopaedic Surgery, is investigating the impact that trauma, aging, and chronic degeneration have on bones, which support our joints. The star researcher, who was recruited from Switzerland, focuses on the fundamental biology of bone stem cells. He studies various inflammatory disease models caused by arthritis and is working to determine how stem cells can improve healing and recovery.

Remaining at the leading edge of stem cell research will ensure that our patients have the latest treatment options and the best chance at recovery.

“Stem cell therapy could be a game changer for professional athletes with repetitive strain bone injuries, allowing them to continue to perform to the best of their ability and give them their quality of life back.” – Dr. Daniel Coutu.

 

Dr. Daniel Coutu
Dr. Daniel Coutu

Bone plays a key role in the health of tissues, such as muscle, tendons, and cartilage that are connected to it. Although bone tissue generally repairs itself very easily, damage to the tendons, ligaments, or cartilage, is much more difficult to heal.

Fortunately, the failure rate for orthopaedic surgery is quite low, approximately two to five percent. However, the success rate drops when athletes incur repeated injuries or with age. Dr. Coutu is hoping to help fill this gap through his stem cell research so that athletes like Devon can have a better recovery rate and longer-lasting results.

“With the growing number of baby boomers and athletes suffering with aches and pains in their joints, I am hoping that our collaborative work will prolong the life of their joints. Stem cell research being conducted here in Ottawa could enable these patients to return to normal sporting activities, improving their quality of life,” said Dr. Paul E. Beaulé, Head, Orthopaedic Surgery at The Ottawa Hospital.

Becoming a champion again

After Devon’s surgeries, rehabilitation was his next focus. “I treated rehab like preparation for any other event. This, combined with the incredible work of my surgery team, helped me get back to competing less than a year later,” said Devon.

Just eleven months after undergoing three surgeries on his arms at The Ottawa Hospital, Devon was back on top – a champion once again.

Devon has since competed against and defeated, some of the most legendary armwrestlers, winning himself numerous championships across the globe.

More recently Devon has opened the gym in his garage to the public to help encourage others to be fit, to help train, and to show off his hardware. There is no doubt that armwrestling will continue to play a large role in Devon and his family’s life for years to come.

Devon with weights

“I am so grateful for my care team at The Ottawa Hospital and that we have this level of expertise right here in Ottawa. They helped me get back to competing and doing what I love.” – Devon Larratt

Devon and Dr. Pollock armwrestle

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

Help us make more happy endings like Devon’s. With your support today, we can continue to champion healthy living tomorrow.

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Recovered COVID-19 patient will always be grateful for his extraordinary care

Diagnosed with COVID-19, Fr. Alex Michalopulos remembers the fear he felt battling the virus while in hospital. He’ll be forever grateful for the compassionate care he received at The Ottawa Hospital. 

As someone who has dedicated his life to being at the bedside of others during an illness, Fr. Alex Michalopulos now has a better understanding of that fear others faced after his recent COVID-19 diagnosis in April. Today, as a recovered patient of COVID-19, Fr. Michalopulos says the experience was a real eye-opener for him and he’s grateful for the compassionate care he received.

Condition deteriorates

The Michalopulos family
Fr. Michalopulos with his wife and three daughters.

The Greek Orthodox priest wasn’t feeling well at the end of March—a busy time for this church community. By April 5, he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and he self-isolated at home. Over time, his condition worsened with extreme headaches, and a progressing cough, resulting in respiratory issues and fever. He was admitted to The Ottawa Hospital, General Campus on April 9.

The gravity of this illness and the resulting discussions became serious very quickly. “There was a discussion about the ventilator that could be needed at some point for my care. DNR consent (Do Not Resuscitate) was discussed and how I should talk with my family about it,” remembers Fr. Michalopulos.

The 61-year-old was transferred from the Emergency Department to a floor where a specialized team could care for him. “It was very scary to go through this experience. I had no idea how this was going to evolve. Doctors and nurses coming in dressed like you see in the movies with their PPE. Not being able to breathe—coughing continuously, headaches—at times I just wanted to die they were so bad.”

Dr. Samantha Halman
Dr. Samantha Halman (left) keeping patients connected to families through technology.

Extraordinary care

While Fr. Michalopulos recalls the fear he felt as he fought for his life, he’s grateful his condition never deteriorated to the point where he needed to be on a ventilator. That gratitude also extends to each person who helped care for him while he was at The Ottawa Hospital. “The doctors, nurses, and cleaning staff were amazing. I take my hat off to them.”

It wasn’t easy to be going through this illness without his wife and daughters by his side. With visitor restrictions in place to protect patients and staff, he could only connect with his family by phone. He adds his care team put him at ease during the times he was in extreme pain.

“All those medical professionals were so caring—it was reassuring that I was in good hands. They put me at ease.”
– Fr. Alex Michalopulos

Dr. Samantha Halman, General Internal Medicine Specialist, has been caring for COVID-19 patients since the arrival of the virus in March. She says for patients like Fr. Michalopulos and others, her medical team served a dual role.

“It wasn’t always about the medical care when treating our COVID patients. Sometimes it was about spending that extra five minutes with a patient. It was important for people to know we were there for them not only as patients but as people.”
– Dr. Samantha Halman

Being on the frontlines during these unprecedented times has been challenging at times. While Dr. Halman never imagined working through something like this, she’s proud of the efforts of her colleagues at The Ottawa Hospital. “This pandemic exemplifies why we went into healthcare – we want to help people.”

It was compassionate care coupled with his faith, that carried him through. He admits it was an eye-opening experience. While Fr. Michalopulos had minor surgery in the past, it wasn’t until his COVID-19 diagnosis and extraordinary care he received at The Ottawa Hospital that he realized how fortunate he is to have this caliber of healthcare in our community. “I was so grateful to all of them for the care; I had pizza delivered to staff when I was leaving.”

Thankful to be on the mend

Fr. Michalopulos was released from hospital on April 19 — Greek Orthodox Easter. As he reflects on his time in hospital, he couldn’t be more thankful to be on the road to recovery today. “For the times when the doctors or nurses came in to see me, for the times when I was reassured—I’m thankful I was well taken care of with love and respect for human life.”

As tears well up in his eyes, and he stops briefly to regain his emotions, Fr. Michalopulos says it’s sometimes good to be on the other side, to feel what others are going through. “I have a lot more respect for the medical professionals. I always had, but this time it was at a different level. They were there for me.

Fr. Michalopulos in Church
Fr. Michalopulos at the Greek Orthodox Church.

“They held my hand. They showed compassion. They showed a lot of respect and love. I will be forever grateful for them.” – Fr. Alex Michalopulos

It was that special touch, and care from complete strangers that helped give Fr. Michalopulos the strength to get back home to the family he loves and eventually to his parish family.

“I will always remember how I was treated by strangers. I admire them and will always pray for them.”

Research update

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are exploring more than 60 research projects to support the world-wide effort to find better ways to treat and prevent COVID-19.  A number of those projects have been supported by the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, including a study led by Drs. Sara J. Abdallah and Juthaporn Cowan. Their research is looking into the long-term effects of the virus. They will be checking in on participating patients at three, six, and 12 months after they were initially infected. Survivors of mild, moderate, and severe infections will be included in the study and researchers will assess the healthcare resources, such as visits to the Emergency Department, hospitalizations, and medications that were used by survivors. Results will help improve care for COVID-19 survivors and optimize how healthcare resources are used.

Fr. Michalopulos agreed to take part in this study. “I thought it would be useful to help researchers understand the effects and lingering effects of the virus in gathering information to help create a vaccine and or a cure.”

He’s grateful to have survived the virus, and this is another way to show his appreciation for the care he received while also helping others. “I also feel it is important to participate as my results will add to the information used to make gains in fighting this contagious and aggressive virus that has changed the society all over the world as we know it.”

Listen to the latest episode of Pulse Podcast, where we go behind the scenes with Dr. Halman and hear what it’s like on one of the units at the Ottawa Hospital caring for COVID-19 patients.

Your donation today will help create better healthcare tomorrow for patients, like Fr. Michalopulos, when they need The Ottawa Hospital.

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Decoding the mystery of Parkinson’s disease

For more than 200 years, no one has been able to solve the Parkinson puzzle. While the exact cause of the disease remains a mystery, dedicated researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are gaining ground—determined to solve the puzzle.

Dr. Michael Schlossmacher
Dr. Michael Schlossmacher in his lab at The Ottawa Hospital.

For more than 200 years, no one has been able to solve the Parkinson puzzle. Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s. It affects approximately 100,000 Canadians—8,000 here in Ottawa. The national number is expected to double by 2050. Each day, many of those patients face uncontrolled trembling in their hands and limbs, the inability to speak loudly, loss of sense of smell, and pains from stiffness.

While the exact cause of the disease remains a mystery, dedicated researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are gaining ground—determined to solve the puzzle. Ottawa is a recognized centre for neuroscience research. Dr. Michael Schlossmacher is the director of the Neuroscience program at The Ottawa Hospital and while he admits Parkinson’s is complicated and complex, there is hope.

“I strongly believe we can solve that riddle. We have the expertise to make a major contribution to a cure for this disease.” Dr. Michael Schlossmacher

Predicting the risk of Parkinson’s

For Schlossmacher, a step forward in unravelling the mystery of this disease came when he was struck by the idea of a mathematical equation, which could potentially foreshadow the disease before it develops. “I’m convinced that by entering known risk factors for Parkinson’s into this model, it is indeed possible to predict who will get the disease.”

Risk factors for Parkinson’s disease include:

  • age
  • chronic constipation
  • reduced sense of smell
  • family history
  • chronic inflammation such as hepatitis or types of inflammatory bowel disease,
  • environmental exposures
  • head injuries
  • gender, as Parkinson’s affect more men than women

Dr. Schlossmacher and his team of researchers are currently combing through data to test the accuracy of their theory to predict Parkinson’s.

To date, Dr. Schlossmacher and his team have analyzed more than 1,000 people, and the results are promising. “The surprising thing so far is the prediction formula is right in 88 to 91 percent of the cases to tell us who has Parkinson’s and who doesn’t—and this is without even examining the movements of a patient.”

The goal is now to expand to field testing in the next two years. According to Dr. Schlossmacher, should the results show the mathematical equation works, this could allow doctors to identify patients who have high scores. “We could modify some of the risk factors, and potentially delay or avoid developing Parkinson’s altogether.”

Partners Investing in Parkinson’s Research

Team PIPR RFR
Team PIPR co-captain Karin Fuller, left, with Elaine Goetz and fellow co-captain, Kristy Shortall-Cain.

Research is costly and community support is vital to help unleash new discoveries. In 2009, a group of investment advisors came together to create Partners Investing in Parkinson’s Research, more commonly known as PIPR. Each year, the group participates in Run for a Reason and raises money as a part of Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. In 11 years, the group has raised $1.4 million for The Ottawa Hospital’s researchers and clinicians.

PIPR has not only helped to fund research toward better treatment and hopefully a cure for Parkinson’s, but the group has also brought much-needed attention to the disease. For Dr. Schlossmacher, funding for research from groups like PIPR, means more hope for the future. He is quick to add that PIPR has galvanized the momentum in our community because they see how committed The Ottawa Hospital is to making a difference.

“This investment by PIPR into research at The Ottawa Hospital has been a total game-changer for us. It has allowed us to pursue projects that otherwise would not yet be funded.”

Donor dollars translate into results

Dr. Sachs practicing the use of 3D technology
Dr. Adam Sachs practicing the use of 3D technology for neurosurgery.

PIPR’s support helped bring deep brain stimulation surgery (DBS) to The Ottawa Hospital. For someone like Karin Fuller, co-captain of team PIPR, she knows the positive impact this type of technology can have. “When my dad had that surgery he had to go to Toronto, which meant going back and forth for the appointments. It was a lot for him and for our family. Helping to bring DBS to our community is a tangible example of what we’ve been able to do as a group to support The Ottawa Hospital,” says Karin.

Also developed at The Ottawa Hospital is the world’s first 3D virtual reality system for neurosurgery. It is being used to increase the accuracy of DBS surgery for patients with Parkinson’s. Our neurosurgeons are the first in the world to use this technology in this way and the goal is to improve the outcome for patients.

Promise for the future

It’s also expected that one day 3D technology could be in every department throughout the hospital. The possibilities for this technology are endless and, in the future, it could help countless patients, beyond Parkinson’s disease.

When Dr. Schlossmacher looks at the puzzle of Parkinson’s, which he’s been investigating for 20 years, he sees promise.

“At The Ottawa Hospital, we think outside the box and that’s how we’re able to unravel mysteries through our research. Research which we hope will one day be transformational.”   Dr. Michael Schlossmacher

He also has sheer determination in his eyes. “To the chagrin of my wife, I will not retire until I put a dent into it. The good news is, I may have 20 years left in the tank but, ultimately, I’d like to put myself out of business.”

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

We need your help to fund research into diseases like Parkinson’s at The Ottawa Hospital and to provide more hope for patients in the future.

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World-first clinical trial aims to protect cancer patients from COVID-19

Our researchers are leading the way in a world-first clinical trial to protect vulnerable cancer patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surgeon-scientist Dr. Rebecca Auer is leading a world-first clinical trial that she hopes will protect cancer patients from COVID-19 and other respiratory infections by boosting their immune systems during treatment. The trial was funded in part thanks to donor support to the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

“A cancer diagnosis is scary at the best of times, but the pandemic has made it even worse,” said Dr. Auer, surgical oncologist and Director of Cancer Research at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “Cancer patients have weakened immune systems, which makes them more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19.”

At best, a severe infection could delay a patient’s cancer treatment. At worst, it could kill them.

Patients receiving cancer treatments are the most at risk because the treatments further weaken their immune system. This at-risk population is quite large – over 90,000 people received radiotherapy or chemotherapy treatments in Ontario alone in 2019.

“While there are many specific vaccines for COVID-19 in the works, they won’t be available for at least a year. Cancer patients need protection now.” – Dr. Rebecca Auer

Boosting the immune system during treatment

Dr. Auer and her team at The Ottawa Hospital came up with the idea of testing whether boosting cancer patients’ immune systems during their treatment could help prevent COVID-19 and other respiratory infections. In collaboration with scientists at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research, they explored an immune-stimulator called IMM-101. Then she worked with Canadian Cancer Trials Group at Queen’s University to design and run the clinical trial at nine cancer centres across Canada.

The researchers will recruit 1,500 patients currently receiving cancer treatment to this clinical trial. Patients will be randomly assigned to receive either regular care, or regular care plus IMM-101. This preparation of harmless heat-killed bacteria had been developed as an anti-cancer therapy because it stimulates the immune system. It has already been safely given to 300 advanced cancer patients in earlier trials.

Training the innate immune system

This trial takes advantage of a lesser-known aspect of the immune system — innate immunity. This first-response arm of the immune system plays a key role in detecting viruses.

Innate immune cells recognize features that are common to many viruses, allowing them to attack viruses the body has never seen before. This is different from the adaptive immune system, which only recognizes viruses the body has already encountered through prior infection or through a vaccine.

The research team hopes that because the IMM-101 treatment can train the patient’s innate immune system, it will help to fight off the COVID-19 virus, in addition to other viruses that cause respiratory infections.

Dr. Rebecca Auer speaks with a colleague
Dr. Rebecca Auer speaks with a colleague (Photo taken before COVID-19)

“There is good data to suggest that the reason some people have no symptoms from COVID-19 while others get very sick is their innate immune system’s ability to respond early and quickly to the virus. This made us consider whether we could use an innate immune booster to prevent COVID-19 infections.” – Dr. Rebecca Auer

Based on data from other immune stimulators, it’s likely that this immune-boost would be temporary. But researchers hope it will last long enough to get a patient through their cancer treatments. Once the treatments have ended, the patient’s immune system would return to its regular strength and be strong enough to fight off viruses on its own.

Protection from more than COVID-19

The advantage of this immune-boosting approach is that it could help cancer patients fight off all sorts of viruses while they are undergoing cancer treatments and are at their most vulnerable.

“The treatment we’re using trains the immune system to do a better job fighting the next viral infection,” said Dr. Auer. “It’s not specific to COVID-19, but actually applies to any viral respiratory illness.”

If successful, IMM-101 could also offer benefits to people with other chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems who are similarly at a heightened risk of serious outcomes from COVID-19. It could also help protect people with cancer from other respiratory infections like the seasonal flu.

Preparing for future pandemics

“In 20 years, we’ve had three coronavirus epidemics or pandemics –SARS, MERS and COVID-19—so it’s likely that we’ll see another,” said Dr. Auer.

“We think harnessing innate immunity could be one of our best weapons for fighting COVID-19 and could be easily adapted to tackle future pandemics.” – Dr. Rebecca Auer

The trial has been approved by Health Canada and will run at cancer centres across Canada this summer and into the fall. The researchers expect to see preliminary results in about nine months.

Donate today to support promising research and clinical trials like this one.

Cancer patients undergoing active treatment who are interested in participating in this trial should speak with their cancer specialist.

The Ottawa Hospital Foundation provided seed funding for this project through the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, funded by generous donors in the community. Read about other projects that have received funding thanks to donor support and are making a difference in the fight against COVID-19.

Additional funding and in-kind support for this trial have been provided by the Canadian Cancer Society, BioCanRx, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, The Ottawa Hospital Academic Medical Organization, ATGen NK Max Canada, and Immodulon Therapeutics, the manufacturer of IMM-101.

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

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