Ottawa scientist wins Canada's top stem cell prize for multiple sclerosis trial

September 6, 2017

Dr. Harold Atkins, stem cell transplant physician and scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa, will receive the prestigious Till & McCulloch Award for “exceptional contributions to global stem cell research.” The award will be presented at the Till & McCulloch Meeting, organized by the Stem Cell Network, in November, 2017.  

Nineteen years ago, many were skeptical when Dr. Atkins and his colleague neurologist Dr. Mark Freedman first proposed the idea that using stem cells to reprogram the immune system could completely halt the progress of multiple sclerosis. While less intense versions of the treatment had been tried before for MS, they did not completely stop the immune system from continuing to damage the brain.

However, after years of careful follow-up of 24 patients with very aggressive MS, they were proven right. Their paper published in The Lancet showed that the risky procedure completely halted the damage to the brain caused by the immune system, stopping relapses. The disabilities in the majority of patients stabilized, and some even recovered lost abilities.

"It's wonderful," said Dr. Atkins. "I've kept in touch with many of these patients, and I even work with one of them. It always seems like a miracle because looking at them now, it is hard to remember what things were like before they started the treatment."

While the MS study was lauded around the world, Dr. Atkins is also proud of his pioneering work using the same treatment for two rare autoimmune disorders.

"We weren't the first ones to try this procedure for MS, but for myasthenia gravis and stiff person syndrome, this was brand new," he said. "The stem cell procedure was able to send patients with these life-threatening diseases into long-term remission."

Dr. Atkins' work has helped The Ottawa Hospital become a leading stem cell transplant center for patients with challenging autoimmune disease. While his team receives many requests, only appropriate patients referred from Canadian specialists are considered.

His next project is to find out whether regenerating a more tolerant immune system can help keep liver transplant recipients from needing lifelong immune-suppressing medication. This research will help him understand how the immune system makes choices at the organ level.

"There are a lot of diseases where the treatments are less than optimal," he said, "This research is one example of using existing tools to treat diseases in ways we never thought possible."

The Till and McCulloch Award, created in honour of Canadian scientists and stem cell pioneers Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch, is presented annually to one researcher in Canada, who has made an exceptional contribution to global stem cell research in that year. The TMM Program Committee selects the awardee based on what is determined to be the year’s most impactful and influential peer-reviewed article by a Canadian stem cell researcher.

Upon receiving the news, Dr. Atkins said, “I am speechless. As a trainee, I was lucky enough to know Dr. McCulloch and learn from him. Dr. McCulloch and Dr. Till are role models that I have tried to emulate.”

The MS trial was funded by the MS Society of Canada and its affiliated Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation. The research was also supported by The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, The Ottawa Hospital Department of Medicine and Canadian Blood Services. Dr. Atkins is also affiliated with the Stem Cell Network, the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute.

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

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