Research Improving Health Today

Calculating how our unhealthy habits take years off our lives

Dr. Doug Manuel and his team have published two tools that help us understand how small decisions we make every day can have a significant effect on our lives. In 2012, the life expectancy calculator accompanied a study that suggests five unhealthy habits of Ontarians are costing them 7.5 years of life. If everyone modified only their most important health risk, overall life expectancy would increase by up to 3.7 years. (See Toronto Star or Globe and Mail.) In 2013, Dr. Manuel introduced the Salt Calculator to help us track the amount of salt we’re eating and identify the main sources of sodium in our diets. (See Globe and Mail and CBC's Marketplace.)


Cancer Spotlight story:

Rapid diagnosis, reduced anxiety: Find out about an innovative program offering fast-track results for women at the highest risk of breast cancer


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New iPhone app helps you track immunizations

Is it time to say goodbye to the yellow card, that iconic paper method of recording vaccinations? Thanks to an iPhone app called ImmunizeON, that time may be near. Developed under the direction of Dr. Kumanan Wilson, the app is designed to make keeping track of children’s vaccinations easier by putting this important information literally at your fingertips. It also sends out reminders and alerts, as well as providing credible information on vaccines and what to do in case of an adverse reaction. The project has attracted significant interest from public health agencies across the country and Dr. Wilson is actively working to improve its reach and functionality. (See Toronto Star.) The app is free and available on iTunes.

App icon for ImmunizeON

While the paper yellow card remains the official vaccination record, we hope this app will make it easier for parents to keep track of their children’s vaccinations.

–Dr. Kumanan Wilson

Flu shot during pregnancy has unexpected benefits

Physicians and researchers from Ottawa published a large study showing that a flu shot during pregnancy provides unanticipated benefits to the baby. Specifically, H1N1 vaccination during the pandemic was associated with a significantly reduced risk of stillbirth, preterm birth and extremely small babies at birth. “Pregnant women are generally very, very careful about what they put into their bodies. For health-care providers like me, such a large-scale study that shows no adverse perinatal outcomes resulting from the H1N1 flu vaccine will be extremely helpful when discussing maternal vaccination,” says co-author Dr. Mark Walker, a senior scientist at OHRI, a high-risk obstetrician at The Ottawa Hospital, and a professor and Tier One Research Chair in Perinatal Research at the University of Ottawa. (See New York Times and Ottawa Citizen.)

Dr. David Moher, one of the driving forces behind SPIRIT 2013

The guiding SPIRIT of doing science right

OHRI continues to play a leading role in international efforts to ensure that studies and trials are asking the right questions, conducted with rigour and reported with integrity — all of which improve the value resulting from the considerable investments that go into clinical trials. The SPIRIT 2013 Statement received endorsement from high-profile journals, such as The Lancet, BMJ and the Annals of Internal Medicine. SPIRIT stands for Standard Protocol Items: Recommendations for Interventional Trials and provides recommendations for a "minimum set of scientific, ethical, and administrative elements that should be addressed in a clinical trial protocol."  Improving these protocols saves time and money when setting up clinical trials, and ensures that results are clearly presented in a way that improves their interpretation. 

A surprising answer about blood transfusions

In a finding that runs counter to commonly held beliefs about fresh being better, a clinical trial led by Dr. Dean Fergusson shows that acutely ill premature babies who received fresher blood (stored for seven days or less) did not fare better than those who received the current standard of care (blood stored for up to 42 days). Dr. Fergusson's trial was the first controlled study in humans. Mounting evidence from observational studies using clinical data suggested that fresh red blood cells are better, which would have required blood collection and banking agencies to implement major changes and find many more donors. (See Journal of the American Medical Association and MedPage Today.)

Follow-up calls at home help people with their medications

Adverse drug reactions occur in an estimated 25 percent of patients who are not in hospital or care facilities. As well, 25 percent of people with new prescriptions will not take their medication as directed. A study by Dr. Alan Forster, senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and scientific director of Clinical Quality and Performance Management at The Ottawa Hospital, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, has shown the potential benefits of using an automated phone system to contact these patients about their prescriptions. The system identified 46 percent of adverse drug events and influenced how 40 percent of those were managed. Dr. Forster recently received a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to further explore the effectiveness of using such a system to help people with their medications.

25% of people with new prescriptions will not take their medication as directed. An automated call system helped resolve adverse reactions.

Research Providing Hope for Tomorrow

Fighting fat with fat: muscle stem cells key

Dr. Michael Rudnicki's lab has made the groundbreaking discovery that adult muscle stem cells can be induced to become brown fat cells, a form of good fat that could play a critical role in the fight against obesity. Dr. Rudnicki's team identified a way to trigger the production of brown fat instead of muscle. One simple injection in the hind leg of a mouse led to the production of brown fat, protected the animals from obesity and improved their ability to process glucose. It also led to increased energy production throughout the body—an effect observed after four months. (See Ottawa Citizen.)


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Regenerative Medicine Spotlight story:

Repairing a damaged immune system: Our researchers are embarking on clinical trial of world’s first stem-cell therapy for septic shock

Prompting the immune system to fight cancer

Drs. Rebecca Auer and John Bell have developed a promising vaccine that kick starts the body's immune response to fight cancer. The vaccine is composed of actual tumour cells that have been infected with a cancer-fighting virus. In mouse cancer models, the vaccine stimulated the immune system to reduce and, in some cases, eliminate cancer. This approach is particularly promising because unique vaccines could easily be created for individual patients using their own tumour cells. This approach also provided a lasting anti-tumour immune response, which could reduce cancer recurrence. (See

Discovery reveals fountain of youth for eggs

Dr. Johné Liu has revealed a critical reason why women experience fertility problems as they get older. The breakthrough also points to a simple solution that could increase the viability of egg cells for women in their late 30s and older — putrescine water. Putrescine is naturally produced in mammals by an enzyme called ornithine decarboxylase, or ODC, and is easily absorbed and cleared by the body. Dr. Liu has shown that ODC levels rise very little in older females and these lower enzyme levels during ovulation leads to an increase in egg cells with chromosomal defects.

Novel protein could treat muscular dystrophy

A breakthrough from Dr. Michael Rudnicki's lab holds promise for sufferers of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). His team has discovered that injecting a novel human protein into muscle affected by DMD significantly increases its size and strength, findings that could lead to a therapy akin to the use of insulin by diabetics. The injection increased muscle strength almost two-fold (to nearly normal levels), increased the size of  muscle fibre and reduced the amount of muscle damage, compared to mice not given the injection. Fate Therapeutics, which acquired OHRI spinoff company Verio Therapeutics,  is working to transform this knowledge into a commercial biotherapeutic.

Discovery could provide therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that affects
one of every
newborn males

Blood test in first trimester identifies likelihood of tiny babies

Dr. Andrée Gruslin has found a protein in the blood of pregnant women that can predict if they are likely to have a fetus that doesn’t grow properly, and thus at a high risk of stillbirth or long-term health complications because they are born so tiny. “By identifying these high-risk pregnancies early on, we will be able to monitor these women more closely and hopefully help them deliver a healthier baby,” says Gruslin. The research could lead to a widely available blood test for use in the first trimester of a woman's pregnancy.

Mice lacking certain gene have bigger brains

Dr. David Picketts and his team have discovered that mice lacking a gene called Snf2l have brains that are 35 percent larger than normal. The research, published in the prestigious journal Developmental Cell, could lead to new approaches to stimulate brain regeneration and may provide important insight into developmental disorders such as autism and Rett syndrome. This paper earned Dr. Picketts the 2012 Dr. Michel Chrétien Researcher of the Year Award, which he received at The Ottawa Hospital Gala.

Milestones and Recognition

$1,000,000,000 in health research at OHRI

This year OHRI received its billionth dollar in revenue since it started on April 1, 2001! “For the past decade OHRI has been a driving force for research, innovation and commercialization," says Bruce Lazenby, president and CEO of Invest Ottawa. Read more about what this milestone means for Ottawa.

OHRI neurologist named to Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

Dr. Antoine Hakim was named to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame for his groundbreaking work in establishing the Canadian Stroke Network (CSN). The Hall of Fame said he has “pushed the boundaries of discovery and innovation beyond the realm of possibility to make the world a better place.” Dr. Hakim is head of the Neuroscience Program at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, the CSN’s Scientific Director and CEO, a senior neurologist at The Ottawa Hospital and a University of Ottawa neurology professor, among many other titles. His greatest pleasure comes from hearing stroke specialists around the world refer to Canada as the leader in stroke care. He predicted that the CSN’s benefit would be less-expensive health care for stroke patients; he and many partners made that a reality, saving the system billions of dollars.

Why Ottawa?

View this video to see why Dr. Thébaud and other leading clinicians and scientists chose Ottawa as the place where they want to make a difference.

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Top stem cell scientist recruited to Ottawa

The Ottawa health care and research community recruited world-renowned scientist and pediatrician Dr. Bernard Thébaud this year. Dr. Thébaud, who began his work here in October, is researching how to use stem cells for the repair of the lungs in premature babies. In combination with groundbreaking basic science, OHRI's emphasis on translating knowledge into therapies for patients made Ottawa the only city in which Dr. Thébaud wanted to be. "To get this work into patients, I need to be around a critical mass of top stem cell biologists," says Thébaud. His research could also lead to new treatments for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

New centre for blood diseases houses world-class team

The Ottawa Blood Disease Centre officially opened its doors in May 2012 – a huge milestone for the more than 30,000 Ottawa-area patients under the care of hematologists. Housed in the Centre for Practice-Changing Research, this centre brings more than 100 of “the best and brightest health-care professionals and researchers together under one roof,” says Dr. Marc Rodger, chief of the Division of Hematology at TOH and senior scientist at OHRI. Previously, the blood disease team was spread across nine locations, in six buildings, on two campuses.

At the funding announcement, Aimee Zeglinski-Spinney told the story of her battle with the same cancer that claimed the life of Terry Fox

$7.5 million bolsters research on cancer-fighting viruses

In October, the Terry Fox Foundation awarded $7.5 million to a multidisciplinary team based in Ottawa and led by Dr. John Bell. The funding allows the Canadian Oncolytic Virus Consortium to continue their innovative work. "Our project aims to use the revolutionary approach of harnessing oncolytic viruses as biotherapeutics and creating effective, targeted anti-cancer agents that cause few, if any, side effects," says Dr. Bell. (See Ottawa Citizen.)

Accolades for our scientists

Over the course of the year, a number of our scientists received other significant awards and recognition for their work. Here is a short list (in alphabetical order):

  • Dr. John Bell received the Canadian Cancer Society’s prestigious Robert L. Noble Prize—awarded for outstanding achievements in cancer research. He was also one of the first-ever recipients of the Order of Ottawa, a civic award established by city council to recognize exceptional citizen contributions to life in Ottawa.
  • Dr. Ian Graham was awarded a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.
  • Dr. David A. Grimes was awarded a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.
  • Dr. Lynn Megeney was awarded a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.
  • Dr. Michael Schlossmacher won the prestigious Annals of Neurology Prize, awarded for an outstanding contribution to clinical neuroscience. Also of note, Dr. Schlossmacher became the first Bhargava Research Chair in Neurodegeneration, made possible by a generous $1-million gift from Sam and Uttra Bhargava.
  • Dr. Dawn Stacey received the 2012 Excellence in Nursing Research award from the Canadian Association of Nurses in Oncology for her work in cancer symptom management.
  • Dr. Ian Stiell was awarded the 2012 President’s Award from the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians (CAEP), as well as the 2012 Award for Outstanding Contribution in Research from the American College of Emergency Physicians.
  • For the second year running, Dr. Eve Tsai was named to Canada's Top 25 Women of Influence list, a recognition of her groundbreaking work and her dedication to bringing researchers and clinicians together.
  • Dr. Kumanan Wilson was awarded a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.