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Message from The Ottawa Hospital Board Chair and CEO

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In the spotlight

Woman’s life transformed by stem cell procedure:

Anne Scott was on life support a dozen times because of a severe autoimmune disease. Now, the retired nurse is in remission thanks to a world-first stem cell procedure.

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In the spotlight

Woman’s life transformed by stem cell procedure:

Anne Scott was on life support a dozen times because of a severe autoimmune disease. Now, the retired nurse is in remission thanks to a world-first stem cell procedure.

Message from The Ottawa Hospital Board Chair and CEO

Read more on the Message from The Ottawa Hospital Board Chair and CEO

Message from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute Board Chair and CEO

Read more on the Message from The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute Board Chair and CEO

Anne Scott had one wish: to live long enough to see her daughter get married. Her odds didn’t look good. She had been on life support 12 times in the year leading up to the wedding.

“If I caught a cold or any respiratory infection, it could send me into a crisis,’ said Scott.

The former nurse has a condition called myasthenia gravis, in which the immune system attacks the communication channels between the muscles and nerves, making breathing or swallowing difficult.

Usually myasthenia gravis is quite treatable. But five years after she was first diagnosed, the usual methods had stopped working. So Scott’s neurologist, Dr. Elizabeth Pringle, referred her to Dr. Harold Atkins, a pioneer in using stem cells to restart the immune systems of patients with multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases.

“As far as we know, Anne is the first person in the world to have this procedure for myasthenia gravis,’ said Dr. Pringle, a neurologist at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “It was done to save her life.’

“We’ve learned that when we restart the immune system, it grows back in better shape and doesn’t attack the body anymore,’ said Dr. Atkins, a stem-cell transplant specialist at The Ottawa Hospital and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “We had the idea that this would work for patients like Anne.’

In June 2001, Scott’s diseased immune system was wiped out with strong chemotherapy, followed by a transplant of her own stem cells. She made it to her daughter’s wedding in September that year, even though she was back in hospital a week later.

“That period after the transplant was the worst I’d ever felt,” said Scott. “Things didn’t change overnight.’

She started to notice a change six months after the transplant. Today, her myasthenia gravis is in remission.

This year, Dr. Atkins and Dr. Pringle published a study showing that Scott and six other myasthenia gravis patients who received the treatment no longer have symptoms.

“Their lives are not disrupted by seeing doctors all the time, or by dealing with possibly life-threatening muscle weakness,” said Dr. Atkins. He noted that there are dangerous risks associated with the transplant procedure, and this treatment is only for patients with severe and untreatable forms of the disease.

Dr. Atkins' work has helped The Ottawa Hospital become a leading stem-cell transplant centre for patients with challenging autoimmune diseases.

Nineteen years ago, many were skeptical when he and neurologist Dr. Mark Freedman first proposed using stem cells to reprogram the immune system of patients with aggressive multiple sclerosis (MS).

However, years of careful follow-up of 24 patients with severe MS revealed that the procedure completely stopped the immune system’s attack on the brain. Their paper published in The Lancet showed that most of the patients’ disabilities stabilized, and nearly half even recovered lost abilities.

"It's wonderful," said Dr. Atkins, who was awarded the hospital’s 2016 Chrétien Researcher of the Year Award for his work in stem-cell procedures for autoimmune diseases. "I've kept in touch with many of these patients, and I even work with one of them. It’s amazing to see how well they are doing, compared to how sick they were when I first met them.”

His next project is to find out whether using a version of this procedure can help keep liver transplant recipients from needing lifelong immune-suppressing medication.

These days, 59-year-old Scott enjoys spending time with her family and volunteering at the Kemptville District Hospital.

“Things just fell into place for a reason, but you know I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said. “I just hope that stem cells can go on to help others with incurable diseases.”

Links:

Stem cell procedure sends patients with severe myasthenia gravis into remission (Media release)

Myasthenia Gravis Treated With Autologous Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation.
(Full study published in JAMA Neurology)

MS breakthrough: Replacing diseased immune system halts progression and allows repair (Media release)

Information for patients: Chemo and blood stem cell transplantation for rare autoimmune diseases

The Ottawa Hospital Regenerative Medicine Program

A fundraising campaign is currently underway to raise vital funds for stem cell research at The Ottawa Hospital. Click here to find out how you can have an impact on this innovative research.

“Things just fell into place for a reason, but I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I just hope that stem cells can go on to help others with incurable diseases.”
– Anne Scott

“We’re treating immune system diseases in ways we never thought possible. It’s a game-changer for some patients who have exhausted all other options.”
– Dr. Harold Atkins