After 18 years with MS—“I really feel like I’m cured.”

“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.

The Ottawa Hospital, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation

 

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.

 

 

 

 

The Ottawa Hospital, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, Heather Harris
Heather and daughter Zoe.

 

The Ottawa Hospital, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation

Support from generous donors like you helps The Ottawa Hospital conduct research that is revolutionizing patients care.

More Great Stories

A double-life — living with kidney disease
Nearly 15 years after a kidney transplant, June Jones’ kidneys failed. She is back on dialysis — and a Canada-wide wait list for a new kidney.
The gift of time with family
Mom of three, Vesna, is living with terminal metastatic breast cancer. She is hoping clinical trials will continue to extend her life so she has more time with those she loves.
Four years after metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, every day is a gift
Jillian O’Connor was 18 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and given less than two years to live. In February, she celebrated the fourth birthday of her healthy baby boy and continues to live life to the fullest.

Stem cells may heal lungs of premature babies

Premature babies need extra oxygen and mechanical intervention to breathe but this can damage their lungs, causing a chronic lung disease. A stem cell treatment soon to be tested in clinical trials at The Ottawa Hospital may help heal the lungs of premature babies.

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. This meant she needed to stay on oxygen even longer to help her breathe.

“She was on supplemental oxygen for so long, it was almost part of her identity,” said Jamie Eberts, Olivia’s mother.

Jamie Eberts holding baby Olivia
Jamie Eberts holding baby Olivia

Olivia was born on January 29, 2017, at 23 and a half weeks gestation―or 17 weeks too early. She weighed one pound, two ounces. Her twin brother Liam weighed only a few ounces more than her. Both babies required oxygen and mechanical ventilation to keep them alive and 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 seven months.

In Canada, 1,000 babies suffer from BPD every year. Often babies with BPD, develop other chronic lung diseases, such as asthma, and many require prolonged oxygen and ventilation. They also 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 turned into pneumonia. It’s scary,” said Jamie. The doctor told her that with Olivia’s respiratory issues, there would be no guarantee she will ever leave the hospital entirely.’”

“Currently there is no treatment for this disease,” said Dr. Bernard Thébaud, a neonatologist and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital.

He hopes to change 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,” said Dr. Thébaud, who is also appointed at CHEO and the University of Ottawa. “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.”

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 research team are preparing for an early phase clinical trial to test the feasibility and safety of the stem cell treatment on premature babies.

“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 eye sight,” said Janet Brintnell, Clinical Manager of the NICU who has seen dozens of premature babies suffer from 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 health-care system. It could reduce length of stay, hospital admissions, and reduce long-term outcomes. It could help these little ones lead healthier lives.”

“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,” said Dr. Thébaud.

Two years ago, when Olivia was in the NICU, Jamie and her husband Tim met Dr. Thébaud and wished his stem cell treatment could have been available to help heal their babies.

“What’s hard is we think, ‘But if we could’ve signed up for the trial? Would Liam be alive? Would Olivia be suffering?” said Jamie. “Even to this day, if we are asked to put Olivia in the trial as an older candidate, we will.”

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. Olivia may suffer respiratory illness her entire life but one day, a stem cell treatment developed here in Ottawa could mean that the next generation of babies with BPD won’t.

“Donors are extremely important to allow us to perform this research, especially when it comes to the stage where it matters most: to translate this research into treatment and have clinical trials.” — Dr. Bernard Thébaud, neonatologist

More Stories

A double-life — living with kidney disease
Nearly 15 years after a kidney transplant, June Jones’ kidneys failed. She is back on dialysis — and a Canada-wide wait list for a new kidney.
The gift of time with family
Mom of three, Vesna, is living with terminal metastatic breast cancer. She is hoping clinical trials will continue to extend her life so she has more time with those she loves.
Four years after metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, every day is a gift
Jillian O’Connor was 18 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and given less than two years to live. In February, she celebrated the fourth birthday of her healthy baby boy and continues to live life to the fullest.

Stem cell treatment banishes disease for MS patient

John Chafe had a job in a bank with the goal of running it one day. But his plans were sidetracked by  an aggressive form of  multiple sclerosis (MS).  In 2001, he became the second person in a world-first clinical trial  of its kind  that virtually eliminated  any new  MS  activity and stabilized his disease.

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.

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.

“I had a transfer to Niagara Falls a few months later. 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.”

She said these 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. He was back in Thunder Bay, but the hospital there did not yet have an MRI machine, so he had to go to Duluth, Minnesota. In April 1995, John took his MRI to an appointment with neurologist and multiple sclerosis specialist Dr. Mark Freedman at The Ottawa Hospital. Dr. Freedman confirmed the diagnosis. John had multiple sclerosis.

“The first actual drug licensed for MS didn’t come into effect in Canada until 1995, and there was nothing available to patients then,” said Dr. Freedman who is also a senior scientist at the hospital and professor of medicine in the field of neurology at the University of Ottawa. “John did take that first drug, interferon, as soon as it was available. He tried at least one other interferon for a while, but the writing was on the wall that he would’ve done very poorly in the absence of something miraculous. His MS was very aggressive.”

John had originally gone to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay because he was an active outdoor enthusiast: seriously into rock climbing and downhill skiing. However, John realized that a career in the financial industry was more lucrative than being a ski instructor. He graduated with degrees in business and economics, and working in banking supported his outdoor activities.

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

John didn’t give up his active lifestyle after being diagnosed, either. Despite the fact that he was having 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. In 1998, the then 30-year-old sold his rock climbing business and transferred to a branch in Ottawa.

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

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 regular treatments weren’t helping either. He needed a miracle.

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 (also a professor of medicine at University of Ottawa) to see if a groundbreaking treatment would halt an aggressive form of MS.

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

Coincidentally, John had an appointment with Dr. Freedman that afternoon. He told him he was very interested in participating in the study. Dr. Freedman agreed he might be a 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 gonna 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.”

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 suitable for the clinical trial. They  also  wanted to ensure he was mentally 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 gonna take a chance.”

Replacing his immune system was a rigorous procedure.  John  would undergo intensive chemotherapy to help eliminate his immune system. There was a possibility of  chemo-induced infertility, so he banked some sperm.  In November 2001, he  was first 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. He said he  started getting weaker and weaker, and felt like death warmed over.  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 had become just 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. By spring, he was ready to move back into his own home again.

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 knew 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.”

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.”

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

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 down. Three years later, John met Patricia, and they married in 2005. Five years later, his beautiful daughter Mary was born.

“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.”

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

“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.”

Although John and 23 others participated in the clinical trial, 56 MS patients have now undergone this innovative stem cell transplant therapy. The made-in-Ottawa treatment has halted all relapses and three quarters of patients have not had further disabilities develop. Even more impressive is the fact that 40 percent of patients had recovery from some of their disabilities. People who are interested in this therapy should speak with their own neurologist, who can request a referral to The Ottawa Hospital MS Clinic. Other hospitals in Canada are also starting to set up similar programs, based on the success in Ottawa.

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

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.


The Ottawa Hospital is raising funds for clinical trials, as research has proven to be the best way to improve treatments and even find cures for multiple sclerosis and other devastating diseases.

More Great Stories

A double-life — living with kidney disease
Nearly 15 years after a kidney transplant, June Jones’ kidneys failed. She is back on dialysis — and a Canada-wide wait list for a new kidney.
The gift of time with family
Mom of three, Vesna, is living with terminal metastatic breast cancer. She is hoping clinical trials will continue to extend her life so she has more time with those she loves.
Four years after metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, every day is a gift
Jillian O’Connor was 18 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and given less than two years to live. In February, she celebrated the fourth birthday of her healthy baby boy and continues to live life to the fullest.

Regenerative medicine and stem cell research

The Ottawa Hospital’s Regenerative Medicine Program is a major centre for the growing area of stem cell research. It is home to more than 250 research staff, working under the leadership of world-renowned stem cell biologist Dr. Michael Rudnicki.

The Challenge

Can human stem cells be harnessed to rebuild the heart after a heart attack? Restore vision to the blind? Reconnect a broken spinal cord? This is the promise of regenerative medicine and the life’s work of more than 250 scientists, clinical investigators, trainees, and staff in The Ottawa Hospital’s Regenerative Medicine Program. Today our teams relentlessly pursue answers to the world’s most challenging health care problems. Tomorrow holds even greater promise as our researchers harness regenerative medicine to pioneer made-in-Ottawa personalized therapies and treatments. Our big ideas are becoming the future of patient care and people are turning to us to solve the world’s greatest health care challenges.

Our Vision

Our researchers continue to discover and harness the incredible power of human stem cells to rebuild, repair, and heal a wide range of medical issues. Stem cells offer the potential to repair the heart after a heart attack, restore vision to the blind, reconnect a broken spinal cord, regenerate brain tissue after a stroke, repair damaged insulin-producing tissue in diabetics, and heal tissues damaged by severe infectious diseases.

We are leading the world in developing new therapies that use living cells and viruses to treat disease. Our groundbreaking work includes numerous world-first clinical trials of cancer-fighting viruses and stem cells. We’re also exploring gene-enhancing stem cells to repair a heart after a heart attack, stem cells to treat septic shock and exosomes, previously thought to be cellular junk, that may be able to help us understand, diagnose, and treat acute myeloid leukemia.

Our patients deserve the best and need us to continue to innovate and provide hope, and our global partners expect nothing less from us.

“We’re entering a new era. More and more we are going to see regenerative medicine use cellular and molecular tools to treat devasting diseases with no current therapy.” – Dr. Michael Rudnicki, Director, Regenerative Medicine Program and Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research

World Firsts

Dr. Duncan Stewart, CEO & Scientific Director, OHRI

2013

Launched the first clinical trial of a gene-enhancing stem cell therapy to repair the heart after a heart attack.

Dr. Atkins and Dr. Freedman

2014

First to use stem cells to send “stiff person syndrome” into long-term remission.

Dr. Lauralyn MacIntyre

2017

Pioneered the use of stem cells to fight deadly septic shock infection, using stem cells to halt the sepsis and repair damage to affected organs.

Why The Ottawa Hospital

The Ottawa Hospital’s Regenerative Medicine Program is a major centre for the growing area of stem cell research. The program includes the Sinclair Centre for Regenerative Medicine, the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research, the Vision Research Centre, and also serves as headquarters for Canada’s Stem Cell Network.

A multidisciplinary culture makes our Regenerative Medicine Program unique in Canada, if not the world. Here, developmental, cell, and molecular biologists work together with bioinformaticists, clinical scientists, and clinicians, in teams and common facilities. Collectively they leverage each other’s work to impact clinical care and translate new discoveries into treatments that can be tested in clinical trials. In fact, the Ottawa Hospital is one of the largest research hospitals in Canada with more than 600 active clinical trials.

Your Impact

According to Dr. Michael Rudnicki, Director of The Ottawa Hospital’s Regenerative Medicine Program, “Stem cell research in Canada is now reaching the point where clinical practice will be impacted in exciting and unforeseen ways.” Thanks to the generous support of our donors, world-class researchers are making discoveries, developing new treatments, and transforming lives–in short, revolutionizing the care we provide patients–every day.

You can have a profound impact in the revolutionary world of regenerative medicine. Your support of The Ottawa Hospital’s Regenerative Medicine Program propels forward our researchers who are working to discover and harness the power of human stem cells to rebuild, repair, and heal a wide range of medical issues.

“Caring for a newborn with severe sepsis is heartbreaking. Current treatments are limited, and antibiotic resistance makes it even more difficult to treat…What we see in the lab is very promising. We think stem cells are going to be a game-changer for these babies.” – Dr. Bernard Thébaud, Senior Scientist, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute

Dr. Daniel Coutu, Research Chair, Regenerative Orthopaedic Surgery
Dr. Daniel Coutu, Research Chair, Regenerative Orthopaedic Surgery

Star researcher in regenerative medicine helps blaze a trail to effectively halt the degenerative process

“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.

Dr. Coutu leads research to help understand how bone regenerates, repairs, and heals. He also investigates the impact trauma, aging, and chronic degeneration has on bones.

Dr. Coutu was part of a team in Switzerland that took on this challenge and developed microscopy techniques to enable scientists to analyze bone and see where stem cells are and what they do. “Because of these techniques, we are just starting to understand the fundamental biology of bone stem cells,” he said.

Dr. Coutu is now the inaugural holder of the Research Chair in Regenerative Orthopaedic Surgery, and based at The Ottawa Hospital’s Sinclair Centre for Regenerative Medicine.

Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cells Research Update

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.

The Ottawa Hospital Foundation is raising money for research that is revolutionizing the care we provide patients.

Be Inspired

A double-life — living with kidney disease
Nearly 15 years after a kidney transplant, June Jones’ kidneys failed. She is back on dialysis — and a Canada-wide wait list for a new kidney.
The gift of time with family
Mom of three, Vesna, is living with terminal metastatic breast cancer. She is hoping clinical trials will continue to extend her life so she has more time with those she loves.
Four years after metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, every day is a gift
Jillian O’Connor was 18 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and given less than two years to live. In February, she celebrated the fourth birthday of her healthy baby boy and continues to live life to the fullest.

The future of health care starts here

Why We Need Your Support

We dare to be great and do so with humility and compassion. We begin each day with optimism and end it with hope. We believe in the healing power of kindness. We are tireless doers and discoverers, with a resolve to care and cure. We know that an ordinary day can become extraordinary in an instant. We are creating the future in Ottawa and changing lives around the world.
And we want you to be at our side.