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OHRI researchers are making tomorrow’s health care possible for patients today

Imagine a world where the heart is repaired after a heart attack or the brain regenerated after a stroke. This is the enormous potential that stem cell research brings, and this is the incredible work that the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) is doing at the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research.

Stem cells: The building blocks of our bodies

“I’ve been working with stem cells my entire career,” says Dr. Michael Rudnicki, senior scientist and Director of OHRI’s Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine Program, and professor at the University of Ottawa. “Stem cells are the building blocks that make up our bodies, and also the building blocks that repair damaged tissue. Stem cells are present with us throughout life, and if we can harness them, we can develop new therapies for treating many devastating and lethal diseases.”

This year, the Sprott Centre is celebrating its fifth anniversary – and in this short time, it has quickly become a global leader for stem cell research.

“The Sprott Centre provides a unique multidisciplinary environment, with outstanding basic scientists, clinician scientists, trainees and staff working together to rapidly move discoveries from the bench to the bedside,” says Dr. Rudnicki. “We also have cutting-edge equipment and a great environment for collaboration and learning.”

Under Dr. Rudnicki’s leadership, the Sprott Centre also provides a hub for Canada’s Stem Cell Network, which brings more than 100 top stem cell researchers together to develop new therapies.

World-first discoveries and clinical trials

OHRI researchers have made a number of world-first discoveries, such as identifying the first stem cells in a muscle and in heart tissue, leading to the development of experimental protein-based drugs that can stimulate stem cells within the body to repair and regenerate damaged tissue.

They’ve also made great progress in stem cell transplantation, treating dozens of patients with multiple sclerosis with an experimental bone marrow stem cell transplant procedure, with very promising results.

The past year alone has been marked with many successes, including ground-breaking clinical trials. Dr. Duncan Stewart recently received Health Canada approval to test the world’s first engineered stem cell therapy for heart attack, and he and Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre also received funding for the first-ever clinical trial of a stem cell therapy for septic shock.

“As an intensive care physician, I am always looking for new approaches to improve patient care,” says Dr. McIntyre, who is also a scientist at OHRI and an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. “Septic shock is one of the most common and devastating conditions we see, and despite our best efforts, between 30 and 40 per cent of patients don’t survive. Researchers at the Sprott Centre have shown that stem cell therapy can triple the survival rate in an experimental model of septic shock, so we’re really excited to test this with patients. This trial is just a first step, but it is a very exciting first step.”

World-renowned researchers

By cultivating this unique and ambitious research environment, OHRI is proud to continue to recruit the best and the brightest researchers from around the world.

World-renowned scientist Dr. William Stanford joined the Sprott Centre in July 2011. His work on reprogramming normal adult blood and skin cells to turn them into powerful stem cells has enormous potential for understanding and treating many diseases.

World-class scientist Dr. Bernard Thébaud will also join the Sprott Centre this summer. As a pediatrician, jointly recruited with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), Dr. Thébaud aims to develop and test new regenerative therapies for premature babies with underdeveloped lungs.

“I came to the Sprott Centre because I wanted to interact with great stem cell scientists, but also with clinicians who treat patients every day,” says Dr. Stanford, senior scientist at the OHRI and professor at the University of Ottawa. “The Sprott Centre is great for this: if I have an idea for a new therapy I can walk down the hall and talk with a cardiologist or a bone marrow transplant specialist to see what they think. Bringing basic and clinical researchers together like this is crucial for the development of new therapies.”

Five great years

After five great years, the team is certain there is much more success to come:

“We are all so happy and excited – this has been an extraordinary few years full of discoveries and we expect this productivity and innovation to continue,” says Dr. Marjorie Brand, senior scientist at OHRI and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

“New stem cell therapies are coming, and within our lifetime we are going to see a radical transformation in the way medicine is practiced,” says Dr. Rudnicki. “And, most importantly, in the way patients are treated.”

The Sprott Centre was named in honour of donors Eric and Vizma Sprott. Many other donors to The Ottawa Hospital Foundation have supported the Centre, in addition to the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Government of Ontario, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Stem Cell Network.