Innovative solutions to complex research problems

Dr. Bill StanfordOttawa Hospital doc finds unconventional way to study rare lung disease.

To find out how a disease works at the cellular level you need to grow the cells in the lab. But what do you do if these cells simply won’t grow? You think outside the box.

This is exactly what The Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. William Stanford did, ultimately finding a solution and opening the door to explore life-saving treatments for patients with a rare lung disease. Dr. Stanford’s out-of-the-box thinking has even garnered the attention of drug makers, anxious to use his work to develop drugs to treat the disease.

Dr. Stanford, Senior Scientist in the Regenerative Medicine Program at The Ottawa Hospital, was inspired to research a rare form of lung cancer that mostly only affects women known as Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) after meeting a patient with the disease. LAM had proven to be difficult to study because researchers weren’t able to culture, or grow, LAM cells in the lab.

Often cancer cells are grown on a material that is similar to where the cancer cells grow in the body. Normally, researchers use a plastic material called tissue culture plastic to grow cancer cells on—but the LAM cells simply wouldn’t grow on it.

“It is as hard and stiff as your bones,” said Dr. Stanford, who is also a professor at the University of Ottawa. “Lungs are not hard like bones, so it makes no sense to study a cell that lives in the lung using tissue culture plastic.”

To solve this dilemma, Dr. Stanford collaborated with a chemical engineer in Toronto to develop a biomaterial gel that has the natural properties of a lung.

“Using that biomaterial gel, we’ve been able to grow our LAM cells in an environment that is similar to the patient’s lungs,” said Dr. Stanford. “Likely the reason why no one has grown these cells before is because they were growing them on the wrong surface.”

Dr. Stanford’s research team at The Ottawa Hospital also developed stem cell models of LAM. His lab took cells from the patient, converted them to stem cells (giving rise to an unlimited supply of LAM cells) that they then used to study the disease. His research team also conducted

a drug screen to find drugs that would specifically target LAM cells without harming the normal cells in the body.

Last year, Dr. Stanford published the with human cells.

After the paper was published, Dr. Stanford received an email from a biotech pharmaceutical company working on a drug for LAM. The company asked to use the cells developed in the lab to test its drug.

“We feel pretty strongly that the drug they have may indeed work, and the drug we found might also work,” said Dr. Stanford. “It’s nice that we’ve been able to contribute something to the field that is being used to find treatments for this rare disease.”

Innovative research at The Ottawa Hospital is leading to innovative treatments for diseases like LAM.

The Ottawa Hospital is raising funds for regenerative medicine research like Dr. Stanford’s, exploring new treatments for complex diseases and improving the lives of patients