What are stem cells?

Every tissue and organ in the body is made up of billions of cells, each with a specialized function. Stem cells are the blank-slates from which all other types of cells originate. They have the ability to divide and make exact copies of themselves or produce specialized cells that can then become new heart muscle cells, brain cells, or other types of cells that can repair damaged organs and tissues.

Adult stem cells
Image of adult stem cells.

Two types of stem cells are most commonly used in research:

Pluripotent stem cells

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Pluripotent Stem Cells, like embryonic stem cells, are able to produce all the different kinds of cells of the body. Because of recent advances, this powerful stem cell can now be made in the laboratory by genetically reprogramming regular adult cells to make them behave like embryonic stem cells. These ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’ (iPSCs) are commonly used to investigate disease onset and progression, to speed up drug development, and to create new therapies for cell and organ transplant applications.

Somatic or adult stem cells

Adult stem cells graphic

Somatic or adult stem cells are found in most mature tissues and organs. These cells are already somewhat specialized and can only make the kinds of cells found in the original tissue. They may also release biological factors into surrounding tissue, to encourage healing in other ways.

How are stem cells used?

Researchers have found that stem cells can be used to treat injury and disease by stimulating the body to repair itself. An early and common example of a stem cell treatment is a bone marrow transplant. A cutting-edge technique when it was introduced about 60 years ago, there are now more than 50,000 performed worldwide, every year.

Bone marrow transplants replace diseased stem cells, incapable of making normal blood cells, with stem cells derived from healthy bone marrow. These new stem cells grow and reproduce, allowing the marrow to make healthy, new blood cells. These procedures have revolutionized the way we treat blood disorders and cancers of the blood like leukemia or lymphoma.

Stem cell application graphic
Stem cell application. Using stem cells to treat disease.

Today, researchers are investigating new ways to use stem cells to rebuild damaged tissue throughout the body, and to treat a wide range of debilitating diseases. In fact, at The Ottawa Hospital our researchers are exploring stem cell therapies for every major system in the human body and we are now using stem cells as a standard treatment for certain kinds of multiple sclerosis.

We are also leading several groundbreaking clinical trials of stem cell treatments for conditions like heart attack, septic shock, COVID-19 and lung damage in premature babies.

How can I access stem cell therapy?

Stem cell therapy is still considered experimental in most cases. If you are interested in stem cell research, you should speak with your healthcare provider to find out if there are any clinical trials that you may be eligible for. You should also be skeptical of anyone who offers stem cell therapies for a fee.

Little Olivia Eberts had oxygen tubes in her nose until after her first birthday. Because she was born prematurely, her tiny lungs were underdeveloped, and she couldn’t breathe without oxygen. Ironically for Olivia, and many premature babies like her, the oxygen that saved her life also damaged her lungs, causing bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), which is like starting out life with emphysema. But a clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital led by Dr. Bernard Thébaud, which uses stem cells to heal the lungs of premature babies, may be a game changer.

An unexpected early birth

Jamie Eberts was 22 weeks pregnant with twins when she started feeling some discomfort. She arrived at the General Campus of The Ottawa Hospital and was admitted — she was going into early labour.

Thankfully, the doctors and nurses at The Ottawa Hospital were ready for any scenario Jamie, her husband Tim, and the babies faced. Each day, there were gentle conversations about how the babies were doing, the process of delivering them, and the chances of survival. Every hour counted. Then, one of the babies developed an infection and all three lives were at risk — the babies had to be delivered.

Baby in NICU
Baby Olivia in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

“Our babies, Liam and Olivia, were born at 5 a.m. on January 29, 2017, at 23-and-half-week’s gestation. Liam was born first. He was small, red, and didn’t make a sound,” remembers Jamie. Olivia weighed one pound, two ounces and Liam weighed only a few ounces more than she did. Both babies required oxygen and mechanical ventilation to keep them alive. As a result, both developed BPD — the most common cause of death in premature babies.

Sadly, baby Liam passed away a few weeks after he was born while Olivia remained in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at The Ottawa Hospital for nine long months.

BPD in Canada

Jamie Eberts carrying baby Olivia.

In Canada, 1,000 babies are diagnosed with BPD every year. Often, babies with BPD develop other chronic lung diseases, such as asthma, and many require prolonged oxygen and ventilation. Additionally, they have a high incidence of hospital readmissions in the first two years of life. Babies with BPD often have problems in other organs as well, such as the brain or the eyes.

When Olivia was finally discharged, she went home with an oxygen tank. During the first year of her life, Olivia spent more time in hospital than out.

“Even now, a simple flu that put me in bed for a couple of days put her in hospital and turns into pneumonia. It’s scary,” says Jamie. The doctor told her that with Olivia’s respiratory issues, she may require hospital intervention for the rest of her life.

Lack of treatment options

“Currently there is no treatment for this disease,” says Dr. Bernard Thébaud, a neonatologist and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital. With that being said, he’s determined to improve the outcome for babies, like Olivia, who have BPD.

 “In the laboratory, we discovered that a particular type of stem cell can prevent BPD or regenerate newborn lungs.” — Dr. Bernard Thébaud

Dr. Bernard Thebaud, neonatal intensive care unit, The Ottawa Hospital
Dr. Bernard Thebaud in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at The Ottawa Hospital.

“Our research uses stem cells, isolated from the umbilical cords of healthy newborns, to prevent the lung injury or even to some degree regenerate a damaged lung in the laboratory. We foresee that these stem cells, given during a certain time during the hospital stay of these babies, could prevent the progression of the lung disease.”

Unlike traditional stem cells that can directly replace damaged cells and tissues, the stem cells that Dr. Thébaud is studying work by producing healing factors that promote regeneration and repair.

Clinical trial offers hope

Dr. Thébaud and his research team are launching a phase I clinical trial to test the feasibility and safety of the stem cell treatment in premature babies. The team is doing everything in their power to make this clinical trial a success, including consulting with healthcare providers and parents of premature babies.

One thing they’ve learned from these consultations is that many parents don’t feel like they know enough about stem cells and clinical trials to decide if they want to enroll their child in the trial. So, Dr. Thébaud and his team created an animated video to explain these concepts and help parents make an informed decision. Parents can share the video with family members if they’d like a second opinion.

Jamie was involved in these consultations and her firsthand experience provided valuable insight to the research team as they planned this project. This is just one example of how researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are partnering with patients and caregivers to improve the quality and success of their research.

Dr. Bernard Thébaud looks at a premature baby in an isolette.
Dr. Bernard Thébaud looks at a premature baby in an isolette.

Dr. Thébaud and his team are now doing a “dress rehearsal” for the clinical trial. “The dress rehearsal lets us test and tweak our tools for approaching parents, including the video, so we know what works best once we’re ready to begin offering the experimental treatment.”

They expect the first treatment will happen early in 2021. If this initial trial is successful, Dr. Thébaud and his team will launch a larger Canadian clinical trial. “This is a critical step towards providing a potential breakthrough therapy that could help premature babies in Canada and around the world,” says Dr. Thébaud.

The made-in-Ottawa clinical trial is supported by The Ottawa Hospital’s Ottawa Methods Centre and Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre, and the Blueprint Translational Research Group.

First trial of its kind in Canada

“Stem cell research is incredibly innovative. Here, we have a very promising, emerging therapy that could prevent lung injury but also improve brain development and eyesight,” says Janet Brintnell, Clinical Manager of the NICU who has seen dozens of premature babies with BPD.

“It’s amazing when you think of what it may be able to do for the quality of life for the child, for their family, and for our healthcare system. It could reduce length of stay, hospital admissions, and improve long-term outcomes. It could help these little ones lead healthier lives.”

— Janet Brintnell

“We are the only ones doing this kind of stem cell research in Canada, and there are only a few other teams in the world that are doing this.”

— Dr. Bernard Thébaud

Yet, three years ago when Olivia was in the NICU, this treatment wasn’t yet available. Now, Jamie and Tim are self-described “cheerleaders” of Dr. Thébaud’s research and are hopeful for what it might mean for future preemies and their families.

“I believe this is our future,” says Jamie. “When I think about what this could have done for our family, I wonder if Liam could have possibly survived. Olivia may not be facing the delays she’s experiencing today. Even to this day, if we are asked to put Olivia in the trial as an older candidate, we will.”

Jamie also adds the there was an impact from a mental health and financial perspective. “Our oldest child, Jacob, has had a very unusual first four years of his life because of how adaptable he has had to be during these difficult times. As a family, this entire experience has been very challenging financially due to a variety of therapies for Olivia and having to get used to becoming a single income family for several years in order to manage Olivia’s complicated schedule. All of this could have potentially been avoided if Dr. Thébaud’s research were available to our twins.”

A new beginning

Olivia is now a happy, active toddler who loves copying what her older brother Jacob does. Although, she still has BPD, it is increasingly manageable, and she no longer requires supplemental oxygen. While Olivia may suffer respiratory illness her entire life, one day a stem cell treatment developed here in Ottawa could mean that the next generation of babies with BPD won’t.

Jamie Eberts with her daughter, Olivia
Jamie Eberts with her daughter, Olivia.

Listen to Pulse Podcast and learn how one day stem cells could heal the lungs of premature babies with Dr. Bernard Thébaud and what it could mean for parents like Jamie Eberts.

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

Heather Harris preparing herself prior to her transplant operation.
Heather Harris preparing herself prior to her transplant operation.

Heather Harris was driving her fiancé to a golf tournament one morning in 2001 when her right foot went numb. By the end of the day, the numbness had spread up the entire right side of her body.

The then-24-year-old Thunder Bay resident had an MRI, which showed signs of multiple sclerosis (MS). The numbness was her first MS attack.

MS is a devastating disease that occurs when the immune system—which protects against foreign organisms such as viruses or bacteria—mistakenly attacks the body’s own central nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerve.

Heather met with neurologist and MS specialist Dr. Mark Freedman just a few weeks before her wedding. Heather’s disease was progressing rapidly. Dr. Freedman told her she would be in a wheelchair within five years.

Dr. Freedman and hematologist and scientist Dr. Harold Atkins were leading a world-first clinical trial, investigating whether patients with early, aggressive MS would benefit if their immune system was wiped out with high-dose chemotherapy and then regenerated with blood stem cells.

The stem cell treatment seemed her only hope. Heather and her husband moved to Ottawa for a year while she took part in the trial. She had the stem cell transplant in November 2006.

“It’s now 12 years since my stem cell transplant. I really feel like I’m cured,” said Heather who has no symptoms of the disease. She works full-time as a school principal, and is back to camping, skiing, running and driving a manual shift car.

Heather and her husband wanted to have a baby. With the help of in vitro fertilization, Heather had a baby girl in 2016. She said her little Zoe is the second miracle in her life.

In June 2016, Drs. Freedman and Atkins published the results of their successful clinical trial in The Lancet, a top medical journal. To date, more than 50 MS patients, like Heather, from all over Canada have undergone this treatment, which eliminated all signs of damaging active brain inflammation.

Three years ago, Sandy Patenaude was given the devastating news that she had stage 4 colorectal cancer. It had spread to her liver and lungs, and was inoperable. Sandy’s oncologist asked if she would like to go on a clinical trial, testing a new cancer stem cell inhibitor drug along with her chemotherapy.

“Cancer stem cell inhibitors, why not?” said Sandy who agreed to be part of the trial.

Dr. Derek Jonker, Medical Oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital, is leading the international trial for people with colorectal cancer, with the experimental drug napabucasin. He explained that cancer stem cells are the rare, immature cells in a tumour, which are often resistant to chemotherapy. They can give rise to the more mature cancer cells that make up the bulk of a tumour. Cancer stem cells are not the same as the normal stem cells that live in many healthy adult tissues and help with healing and repair.

“With chemotherapy, we can deliver treatment that can shrink the vast part of the cancer,” said Dr. Jonker, who is also an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “Often the bulk of the tumour disappears, but what’s left is a small tumour with lots of these chemo-resistant cancer stem cells, which are able to spread and seed other places in the body. Often, we keep giving the same chemotherapy and find the tumour has regrown, but it’s not the same tumour it was when we started.”

Dr. Derek Jonker
Dr. Derek Jonker led a clinical trial for colorectal cancer with a cancer stem cell inhibiting drug that has helped Sandy Patenaude.

Dr. Jonker is switching up the treatment to target the  cancer stem  cells that aren’t affected by standard chemo. In a previous randomized  clinical  trial he led , patients either  received a placebo or  napabucasin  to test its effectiveness at  inhibiting, or preventing,  the growth of the  cancer stem cells. The trial was carried out at  40  sites in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The  562  patients enrolled had advanced colorectal cancer  and chemotherapy no longer worked for them.

Looking at the results of the trial, Dr. Jonker said  they didn’t see much benefit in the group overall. “But when we looked at patients who had a  tumour  that  had characteristics of a high cancer stem cell (phospho-STAT3) over expression there was very significant improvement in their survival.”

Dr. Jonker presented his findings in October 2016 at the European Society for Medical Oncology, showing that where the cancer stem cell inhibitor didn’t work in all patients, there was an improvement in the survival of the 22 percent of patients who had  tumours  with high phospho-STAT3.  He said it’s “proof of principle that stem cells are an important target for cancer patients.” Napabucasin is now being combined in the  current trial  with chemotherapy to attack the cancer on two fronts  at the same time.

“We know  with results of the clinical trial that  the majority of  patients did not respond to it, but we have two patients here in Ottawa who  have responded and definitely developed benefit from the clinical agent,” said  medical oncologist Dr. Christine Cripps.

I thought I’d be part of the trial, because I thought well, it’s new.”

Sandy is one of those patients who benefited.  Her tumours shrank,  and the surgeons were able to remove spots in her liver and the primary  tumour in her rectum.  Dr. Cripps said she believes that part of the success in keeping Sandy’s cancer at bay is the napabucasin she is taking as part of  the  clinical trial.

“A stem cell inhibitor works differently than traditional chemotherapy, in that it prevents new disease from  appearing,” said  Saara  Ali, research coordinator for clinical trials in gastrointestinal cancers. “The hope is that the pill [napabucasin] will prevent new disease from showing. And in Sandy’s case there hasn’t been new disease  since her treatment. Everything was there before, so it may be doing its job.”

Next steps: Dr. Jonker hopes to start  another clinical trial with the cancer stem cell inhibitor that will be used specifically for patients who have lots of phospho-STAT3 in their  tumour. These patients could be identified for the clinical trial with molecular testing, using The Ottawa Hospital’s Molecular Oncology Diagnostics lab.  This would target the patients presumed to be the most likely to benefit most from the drug.

“We would repeat our study, randomize those patients with  napabucasin  and a placebo, and if we can prove that  napabucasin is effective for them, then it would be an option for patients who have run out of all other treatment options,” said Dr. Jonker.

Dr. Cripps said that Sandy is a candidate for this next trial,  and her tumours  will be analyzed by the molecular lab to see  whether she has high phospho-STAT3 cancer stem cell expression. Regardless, Sandy will continue using the trial drug as long as it is working for her. And it is working. The mother of three adult children said  she’s busy doing a million things, playing euchre, the ukulele, skiing, hiking, biking, and enjoying life.

A strange thing happened before John Chafe started working in Kenora in 1993. His eyes crossed. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was the first sign of a debilitating disease that would change the course of his life forever.

His family doctor told him he had the flu and prescribed antibiotics. But after a week, when his eyes remained crossed, he bought an eye patch and drove five hours from Thunder Bay to fill the temporary posting at a bank in Kenora. A week later, his eyes straightened and returned to normal. But then other symptoms started appearing, he was losing his balance and couldn’t walk in a straight line.

“I then started have difficulties walking straight. I completely failed a simple balance beam experiment at the Ontario Science Centre,” said John. “I mentioned these symptoms to a friend, who mentioned them to a friend, who fortunately happened to be Dr. Heather MacLean, a neurologist at The Ottawa Hospital.”

To Dr. MacLean, John’s symptoms sounded like multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system attacks its own central nervous system, brain, and spinal cord. John needed an MRI and spinal tap to properly diagnose his symptoms. The results were analyzed by Dr. Mark Freedman, Director, Multiple Sclerosis Research Unit, Neurology, who confirmed his diagnosis. John had an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis.

John Chafe skiing
John Chafe skiing at Blackcomb just after diagnosis in 1994.

A different life after MS diagnosis

Incredibly interested in rock climbing and skiing, John didn’t give up his active lifestyle after his diagnosis, despite the fact that he was experiencing MS exacerbations – an attack that causes new MS symptoms, or worsens old symptoms – every eight months. He returned to Thunder Bay and opened a rock-climbing gym, thinking, “MS is not going to affect me.”

But it did. It completely sidetracked his life.

After suffering another MS exacerbation, John realized it was becoming more difficult for him to get out to see clients for financial planning sessions.

“I was stumbling along and thought, ‘How can I ask them to trust me with their money?’ My MS was getting worse and worse,” said John. “I needed a desk job, so I went into computer programming.”

His treatments weren’t helping. He needed a miracle. So he moved to Ottawa to be close to The Ottawa Hospital where we could receive the very best treatment.

Leading-edge clinical trial in Ottawa

Dr. Harold Atkins and Dr. Mark Freedman
Dr. Harold Atkins and Dr. Mark Freedman conducted an innovative stem cell treatment for MS that has halted the disease in over 50 patients

One day, John heard Dr. Freedman on the radio talking about an innovative stem cell transplant study that he described as akin to pressing reboot on the immune system. Dr. Freedman was working with hematologist and scientist Dr. Harold Atkins, a professor of medicine at University of Ottawa, to see if a groundbreaking treatment would halt an aggressive form of MS.

When John met with Dr. Freedman, he told him he was interested in participating in this new study. Dr. Freedman agreed he might be a good candidate because he was young, generally healthy, and his symptoms were quickly getting worse.

“If you saw his trajectory, how fast he was becoming disabled going into the transplant.  He should’ve been completely wheelchair bound, or worse, within two to three years,” said Dr Freedman.

John was willing to try an experimental treatment that had the potential to change that trajectory. “MS robbed me of my ability to climb, ski, and walk. I said, ‘I’m going to take a chance.’”

“John was very enthusiastic. That was a very important facet of his recovery,” said Dr. Freedman. “John has never been a quitter. He’s a stubborn guy. His goal was someday to end up on the ski hill again.”

Preparing for treatment

For almost a year, John underwent the exhaustive testing by Dr. Atkins and Marjorie Bowman, the bone marrow transplant nurse, to see if he was physically and mentally suitable for the clinical trial. They wanted to ensure he was prepared to go through the intensive trial treatment and accept the risks, which included death.

“This is fundamentally different than every other treatment,” said Dr. Atkins. “What we’re doing is getting rid of the old immune system and creating a new one that behaves more appropriately.”

“MS robbed me of my ability to climb, ski, and walk. I said ‘I’m going to take a chance.’”

— John Chafe

Replacing his immune system was a rigorous procedure.  John would undergo intensive chemotherapy to help eliminate his immune system.  In November 2001, he was given a dose of chemotherapy to stimulate and move his stem cells into his blood stream.  These stem cells were then collected and cleansed of any traces of MS.

A month later, John was given huge doses of chemo in an attempt to destroy his immune system and started getting weaker and weaker.  On December 13, 2001, after the chemo had wiped out his immune system, John had the cleansed stem cells re-infused by an intravenous  drip.

“I didn’t feel better immediately,” said John, who was only the second patient in the world to undergo a stem-cell transplant of this kind for multiple sclerosis.  “But I started getting stronger in the days following, so much so that Dr.  Atkins released me on Christmas Eve.” He spent three months living with his parents while he recuperated. By spring, he was ready to move back into his own home again.

John Chafe rock climbing
John Chafe rock climbing outside Thunder Bay in 1994 after his MS diagnosis.

Groundbreaking research in Ottawa

Dr. Freedman said that he and Dr. Atkins had anticipated that by rebooting MS patients’ immune systems, they fully expected the disease was going to restart.

“At that time, genetic researchers said, ‘If people are genetically prone to develop MS, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. They’re going to keep redeveloping MS,’” said Dr. Freedman. “If that was true, it would be a matter of time before people started having active disease again.”

Dr. Freedman explained that nobody knows what causes MS. He and Dr. Harold Atkins hoped that through the trial they could reboot a patient’s immune system and monitor it with all the latest immune system  monitoring  and imaging technology, and then watch as the disease restarted and discover the  secret of what triggers MS. However, none of the 24 patients in the trial developed new symptoms of MS again.

“In that respect, the trial was a failure. It halted their disease and in some cases their disabilities went away too,” said Dr. Freedman. “We’ve followed these patients for 18 years, and nobody’s developed anything.”

“Those patients at the beginning, like John, are probably the bravest because there were more unknowns about the treatment,” said Dr. Atkins. “Each patient we’ve treated over the years has taught us something, but we learned more from the early patients at that time.”

A second chance at life

Prior to his stem cell transplant, John had a final exacerbation, which crippled him. After the transplant, his MS did not return. John remained healthy, but the damage caused by the disease wasn’t reversed and he still walks using a cane and walker.

“You almost wonder what would’ve happened to John if he’d had the transplant five years earlier,” said Dr. Freedman. “Today, when we see a patient that has the same profile as John’s, we offer them the stem cell treatment. We’re not waiting years. We’ve become more savvy, able to pick out individuals who warrant this aggressive approach.”

About 77,000 Canadians live with MS. However, only five percent of patients with MS warrant a stem cell transplant. They are generally young and have the most aggressive and debilitating forms of the disease.

After his transplant, nothing was going to hold John back. Three years later, he met Patricia, and they married in 2005. Five years later, his beautiful daughter Mary was born.

John Chafe with his daughter Mary and wife Patricia
John Chafe with his daughter Mary and wife Patricia in 2013.

“I recall that as Mary started moving more, she motivated me to get more active again. She became my personal trainer,” said John. “I joined the Canadian Association of Disabled Skiing. I was terrible at first because I didn’t have the strength. But I’m stubborn and refused to give up, and today I can ski independently for hours – albeit with outriggers for balance.”

“I saw John a few years ago. The problem with this business is patients get better and so I don’t see them much afterwards,” said Dr. Atkins. “I do remember him showing me pictures of his young baby, and pictures of him on the ski slope. It is exciting to hear that people can have these treatments and go skiing again.”

John Chafe skiing with his family
John Chafe, Mary and Patricia skiing at Edelweiss in 2016.

“I’m not a bank president, but my life is better than incredible. I ski, I dance with my wife, and have an nine-year-old daughter. Because Dr. Freedman and Dr. Atkins were persistent about finding the answers to stop a disease like MS, they saved my life.”

— John Chafe

The following video focuses on Jennifer Molson who was also one of the early patients on the MS clinical trial, and includes interviews with Drs. Atkins and Freedman.


From bench to bedside–bringing stem cell discoveries to patients faster than ever.

From cell and molecular biologists to bioinformaticists, to clinical scientists, and methodologists, specialists are coming to Ottawa to be part of something truly special. Collectively, their expertise is resulting in unprecedented breakthroughs that can move from lab bench to bedside faster than ever. This means in new and exciting treatments, improved care, and ultimately better outcomes for our patients.

“We’re entering a new era. More and more we are going to see regenerative medicine use cellular and molecular tools to treat devastating diseases with no current therapy.”

— Dr. Michael Rudnicki, Director, Regenerative Medicine Program and Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research

Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cells Research Update

Innovations thanks to donor support

Stem cells may heal lungs of premature babies
A stem cell treatment soon to be tested in clinical trials at The Ottawa Hospital may help heal the lungs of premature babies.
Stem cell treatment banishes disease for Multiple Sclerosis patient
In 2001, John Chafe became just the second person in a world-first clinical trial  of its kind  that rebooted his immune system, virtually halted an aggressive form of MS, and stabilized his disease. 
Bone research gets a break at The Ottawa Hospital
Dr. Daniel Coutu, the new Research Chair in Regenerative Orthopaedic Surgery will lead research to help understand how bone regenerates, repairs and heals.

Stems cells make dream come true

When Jennifer Molson was 21 years old, she dreamed of becoming a police officer, marrying her boyfriend and dancing at her wedding. Those dreams were shattered when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Over a period of six years she had multiple relapses. She was in a wheelchair, unable to work, and looking for a miracle. That’s when Drs. Mark Freedman and Harry Atkins from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute told her about an experimental treatment using stem cells. Jennifer became the sixth patient in a groundbreaking clinical trial during which stem cells were extracted from her bone marrow and transplanted back into her body. Jennifer found her miracle. Today she no longer needs a wheelchair. She is off medication, works full time, and leads an independent life. And, yes, she married her boyfriend and danced at her wedding.

“If you are in the computer business, you go to the Silicon Valley; if you are in oil and gas, you have to be in Alberta; if you are in stem cells, you need to be in Ontario, particularly Ottawa, because that is where the greatest advances are being made.”

— Dr. Bernard Thébaud, neonatologist at The Ottawa Hospital is developing a stem cell treatment to heal the lungs of premature babies.

Dr. Bernard Thébaud, Senior Scientist, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute

The recruitment of a star researcher in regenerative medicine is helping to blaze a trail to effectively halting the degenerative process, to help make injuries heal quicker and more reliably.

“Ottawa is the place to be for stem cell research,”  said Dr. Daniel Coutu. He should know. He’s a bone stem cell expert recruited from Switzerland.

magnified image of stem cells
Stem/progenitor cells (green) need blood vessels (red) to produce mineralized bone tissue (white and blue)

Dr. Coutu is the inaugural holder of the Research Chair in Regenerative  Orthopaedic  Surgery. It wasn’t hard to persuade him to accept the position. He was already keenly aware of the internationally recognized stem cell research being done at The Ottawa Hospital.  His recruitment was in conjunction with the Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa, where Dr. Coutu will be teaching in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.

“With the growing number of baby boomers and athletes suffering with aches and pains in their joints, regenerative surgery is the way of the future to offer them a return to normal activity and quality of life to help them stay active,” said Dr. Paul E. Beaulé, Head,  Orthopaedic  Surgery at The Ottawa Hospital.

The new orthopaedic research chair will focus on the fundamental biology of bone stem cells. Bone plays a key role in the health of tissues  (such as  muscle, tendons, and cartilage)  that are connected to it. Dr. Coutu will lead research to help understand how bone regenerates, repairs, and heals. He’ll also investigate the impact trauma, aging, and chronic degeneration has on bones.

“Bones can regenerate by themselves. If you have a fracture and set it, the bone will heal without a scar,” said Dr. Coutu. “But tendons scar and an injury to tendon tissue tends to lose its regenerative property with scarring. I want to see how we can reverse the regeneration properties after injury, so the patient will not scar. I also want to investigate what happens to bone stem cells over time and with age.”

He said surgeons can successfully reattach a ligament to the bone. However, the success rate of this decreases with the age of patients and repetitive injury.

Image of cross section of a mouse femur
Over 125,000 microscopic images were stitched/assembled to recreate a mouse femur in multicolor and 3D.

Regenerative Orthopaedic Surgery Chair Update 2018

“Because of these techniques, we are just starting to understand the fundamental biology of bone stem cells,” he said.

“We are delighted to have Daniel Coutu join our team. His expertise in bone stem cells coupled with his cutting  edge image analysis techniques make him an outstanding fit for our Regenerative Medicine Program,”  said Dr. Michael Rudnicki, Senior Scientist and Director,  Regenerative Medicine Program, The Ottawa Hospital,  Professor, University of Ottawa,  and CEO and Scientific Director, Stem Cell Network.

Dr. Daniel Coutu sits at a microscope

Although Dr. Coutu will primarily be conducting research in the lab, he will be working with clinicians to develop new therapies to treat patients.   To  better understand clinicians’  and patients’ needs, he will attend rounds with surgeons in the hospital, as well as attend clinical conferences. He said the visibility conferences provide and the clinical knowledge he’ll gain will position The Ottawa Hospital as a leader in regenerative  orthopaedic  surgery.

“Collaboration between basic scientists and clinicians is the best recipe for impactful orthopaedic research. We, in the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, are extremely excited to support the recruitment of this scientist whose research will lead to discoveries that will translate into effective treatment of orthopaedic-related injuries and trauma,” said Dr. Beaulé.

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After an incredibly rare accident on his farm in Perth, Olympic equestrian Ian Millar was rushed to The Ottawa Hospital Trauma Centre with a severe arm injury with tremendous blood loss. A skilled team was ready to provide the care he needed to get him back doing what he loves most.
Canadian armwrestling legend wins championship after arthroscopic surgery
Devon “No Limits” Larratt is a Canadian armwrestling world champion in both the left and right arms. But even champions face injury and hardships. Devon’s led him to experts at The Ottawa Hospital.
Celebrating a “re-birthday” each year since having a cancerous brain tumour removed
Ten years ago, The Ottawa Hospital saved Kimberly Mountain’s life after the discovery of cancerous brain tumour. Today, she’s confident if the cancer comes back, The Ottawa Hospital will be ready to save her again.
Mid-surgery decision to leave abdomen open for two days saves woman’s life
Phyllis’ life was on the line. A twist in her small intestine was causing it to die. But a surgical technique to leave her abdomen open saved her life.