Making every blood transfusion count

Dr. Dean Fergusson is receiving The Ottawa Hospital’s Grimes Career Achievement Award for trailblazing research that is saving lives and blood around the world

November 12, 2021

Dr. Dean Fergusson holds a bag of blood in The Ottawa Hospital's Blood Bank“Blood is such a precious resource,” says Dr. Dean Fergusson. “We need to use it right.”Every 17 minutes, a patient at The Ottawa Hospital receives a blood transfusion. It could be a young person fighting for their life after a car accident, a cancer patient suffering from side effects of chemotherapy, or a new mother recovering from a difficult delivery. 

Blood is probably the most common life-saving treatment given in hospital, yet it is not studied nearly as much as typical drugs. For the last 25 years, Dr. Dean Fergusson has worked to change this. As a senior scientist specializing in transfusion medicine at The Ottawa Hospital, his research has already saved thousands of lives and improved blood transfusions for millions of people around the world. In recognition of his outstanding research achievements, Dr. Fergusson is receiving The Ottawa Hospital’s Grimes Career Achievement Award for 2021.

“When I started out in research, I quickly learned that the Canadian blood system is robust and transfusions are very safe,” said Dr. Fergusson, who also leads The Ottawa Hospital’s Clinical Epidemiology Program and is a professor at the University of Ottawa. “Nevertheless, there were a lot of unanswered questions around how and when we transfuse, the optimal blood products to transfuse, and the awareness and effectiveness of therapies to reduce the need for transfusions.”

Safely preventing blood loss during surgery

One question that piqued Dr. Fergusson’s interest related to drugs that were commonly used to prevent blood loss during surgery. While hundreds of studies had shown that the three main drugs were safe and effective compared to placebo, nobody had ever rigorously compared them head-to-head. Dr. Fergusson and his colleagues were the first to do so, and surprisingly, they found that the cheaper, generic drug was actually safer than the brand-name version. Their study changed medical practice around the world overnight, saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars.

In addition to changing medical practice, the results also helped to changed medical research by showing the need for systematic reviews and clinical trials that compare different therapies and strategies.

Fresher isn’t always better

Another big question Dr. Fergusson tackled was how long blood should be stored for. In the 2000s, virtually all of the laboratory and human observational studies suggested that “fresher” blood was better, but nobody had rigorously tested this in in humans. In a series of pivotal trials in newborns, adults and children, Dr. Fergusson and his colleagues demonstrated that fresher blood was no better, and perhaps even somewhat harmful compared to older stored blood.

“This was fascinating because it contradicted prevailing wisdom and millions of dollars had been poured into basic research on blood storage, and some blood banks were getting poised to act on those results, but it didn’t hold up in the real world,” said Dr. Fergusson.

Dr. Fergusson’s research has also changed how blood transfusions are given to patients undergoing heart surgery, cancer treatment and critical care.

Doing research ‘the right way’

Over the course of his career, Dr. Fergusson has published nearly 600 peer-reviewed research papers and secured more than $75 million in peer-reviewed grants as Principal or Co-Principal Investigator, plus another $133 million as Co-Investigator. He has also mentored dozens of trainees and junior scientists and has led the international Society for Clinical Trials.

Colleagues note that he is “incredibly humble, honest and a person of great integrity” who is “passionate about the potential for rigorous research to make a difference to patients’ lives.”

“When I think about this award, I think about how thankful I am to my mentors,” said Dr. Fergusson. “They taught me that there’s only one way to do research and that’s doing it the right way. The rigour that they lived up to, that was instilled in me, and that I pass along to my trainees is not taken for granted.”

Dr. Fergusson has also spread this rigorous research ethic throughout The Ottawa Hospital as a champion for the Ottawa Methods Centre. Founded in 2006, this Centre provides expert research advice and support to hundreds of physicians, nurses and other clinicians and trainees at The Ottawa Hospital every year. In recent years, the Centre has grown to include a world-leading patient engagement program, as well as supporting basic laboratory research and the translation of discoveries into first-in-human clinical trials.

Does a career achievement award mean that Dr. Fergusson will start to slow down?

“There are still so many unanswered questions in transfusion medicine. My goal is to tick a few more off every few years,” he said. “And there is still so much more potential at The Ottawa Hospital. With our people, our ideas, and the outstanding clinical and research environment, we can impact the lives of patients and their families around the world.”

About The Ottawa Hospital 
The Ottawa Hospital is one of Canada’s top learning and research hospitals, where excellent care is inspired by research and driven by compassion. As the third-largest employer in Ottawa, our support staff, researchers, nurses, physicians, and volunteers never stop seeking solutions to the most complex health-care challenges. Our multi-campus hospital, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, attracts some of the most influential scientific minds from around the world. Backed by generous support from the community, we are committed to providing the world-class, compassionate care we would want for our loved ones.

About the University of Ottawa
The University of Ottawa is home to over 50,000 students, faculty and staff, who live, work and study in both French and English. Our campus is a crossroads of cultures and ideas, where bold minds come together to inspire game-changing ideas. We are one of Canada’s top 10 research universities—our professors and researchers explore new approaches to today’s challenges. One of a handful of Canadian universities ranked among the top 200 in the world, we attract exceptional thinkers and welcome diverse perspectives from across the globe.

Media Contact 
Jenn Ganton