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Canadian researchers find calcium more of a menace from within

OTTAWA, September 26, 2003 - A group of Canadian researchers has determined that many drugs currently under development to treat brain and spinal cord injuries and illnesses might be "doomed to fail," says Dr. Peter Stys, Senior Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. The research group has published their findings in the September 25 edition of the prestigious journal Neuron.

Bringing his discoveries from bench-to-bedside, Dr. Stys sees patients as a Neurologist at The Ottawa Hospital. He also helps prepare the next generation of doctors and researchers as a Professor at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Medicine.

"Imagine building a fortress around your home, equipped with high tech locks and huge walls with barbed wire to keep intruders out, only to find out a more dangerous intruder was already lurking inside your walls. That is what we have discovered with some neurological problems, with calcium being the equivalent of the intruder," said Dr. Stys.

Axons, or the nerve fibers of the brain and spinal cord, are damaged by a number of conditions like stroke, spinal cord and traumatic brain injury and demyelination, or stripping of the insulating sheath, such as it happens with multiple sclerosis. In many if not all of these conditions, excess accumulation of calcium inside the fibers is the key event that causes them to degenerate and die.

Therefore, many clinical trials aimed at the above conditions are concerned with limiting the entry of calcium from outside to inside of the cell. While this strategy is on the right track, this study argues that it does not go far enough. "What we discovered is that in brain and spinal nerve fibers, limiting such calcium entry is not enough to protect them; there is an equally powerful and damaging source of calcium released from compartments within the fibers," said Dr. Stys. "The amount of calcium stored inside is so large that when control is lost over these internal calcium pools -- as during injury -- the fibers are severely and irreversibly damaged. Therefore, any any drug trial that does not address this parallel mode of cellular calcium overload, we predict, is doomed to fail. Indeed, all trials in stroke and brain/spinal cord injury that have taken a simplistic approach, without attention to calcium sources inside nerve cells, have failed."

Dr. Stys adds: "Our objective was not to point out weaknesses in current studies, but rather ensure that the efforts of all of us involved in the battle against neurological disorders are aligned on the right track."

This is particularly important given the tremendous impact that these neurological conditions have on Canadians. For example, Canada has one of the highest incidence rates for MS in the world. Furthermore, every day in Canada:

  • Three new people will be diagnosed with MS
  • 100 people, mostly young men, will acquire a spinal cord or brain injury
  • Between 110 and 140 people will suffer a stroke, and 40 of them will not survive

This research would not have been possible without the generous support of the National Institutes of Health (US), Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario and the Canadian Stroke Network.

About the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI):
The OHRI is an institute of The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa. With more than 200 scientists, 225 students and more than 400 support staff, and $42 million in external funding, the OHRI is one of the fastest growing and most respected hospital-based research institutes in Canada. For more information on the OHRI, visit our web site at:


Media Contacts:
Ron Vezina, Manager, Public Affairs and Media Relations, The Ottawa Hospital, (613) 737-8460.

Sharon Way, Public Affairs and Media Relations, The Ottawa Hospital, (613) 737-8899 ext. 74507.>

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