New research chief aims to make lab breakthroughs work for people: OHRI announces cardiologist from Toronto to take over in July

January 9, 2007

By Tom Spears
The Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa's biggest medical research outfit is getting a new boss, a guy who wants to take the wonderful lab discoveries of recent years and see whether they can actually help patients.

For years, medical journals have been announcing things like this: Scientist Smith has found the gene for yet another disease, which could some day lead to new treatment ...

But these new treatments haven't been appearing, Duncan Stewart notes. Soon it will be his job to preside over hundreds of people who hope to make this happen.

Starting in July, Dr. Stewart, a cardiologist currently working in Toronto, will take over as boss of Ottawa's main medical research establishment.

This actually carries several criss-crossing titles for separate, but related, institutions: chief executive officer and scientific director of the Ottawa Health Research Institute (OHRI), vice-president of research at the Ottawa Hospital, and a faculty job at the University of Ottawa.

He was named yesterday after a 14-month search to replace Ron Worton, the stem cell scientist who has spent 11 years building up the bricks, mortar and brain trust that became the OHRI. He will retire at the end of March.

Dr. Stewart's name began leaking out recently among some scientists at the OHRI. Yesterday, with the official announcement, the new boss appeared in person to meet his future senior staff over cookies and danishes at their new stem cell centre on Smyth Road.

"I think we're going to see dramatic changes. I think it will be in the next 10 years," he said in an interview.

Medicine has been refining drugs for more than a century, "but what's happened under the radar is a complete revolution in the understanding of the basic workings of cells -- the genetics, the proteomics (how proteins work), the molecular cell biology."

That has brought great scientific knowledge, he says. "But this has not transformed patient care."

The coming 10 years, he believes, will see the abstract knowledge of cells turn into real-life treatment.

"It's like everything," says Dr. Stewart. "It starts to flow and then begins to snowball. Where it's really going to make a difference is in loss-of-function diseases" -- those in which a major organ loses the ability to work properly.

Such diseases include heart failure and Parkinson's.

"We're talking about strategies which will actually be able to restore functions," says Dr. Stewart. "And this is where our drugs can't really help that much. They can only improve symptoms or modify the progression of disease, but they don't change the problem fundamentally."

That's where stem cells come in, and gene therapy, and his own research area in cardiology: using cells from a patient's own bone marrow, re-engineered and introduced into the lungs, to help healthy new blood vessels grow.

Dr. Stewart, 53, is now director of cardiology at the University of Toronto, associate director of research at St. Michael's Hospital and director of the McLaughlin Centre for Molecular Medicine.

He was born in England and grew up in Montreal.

OHRI has about 105 principal investigators (staff scientists). But another 250 investigators (mostly from area hospitals) also do research there, and the technicians and students bring the overall numbers to more than 1,200.

Note: Reproduced with permission from the Ottawa Citizen.