Jan 2015

Toronto MDs ‘put skin in the game’ to try to cure arthritis

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Physicians at Toronto’s University Health Network have tapped their own savings to start the first North American stem cell trial for osteoarthritis.

The trial, part of the UHN’s Arthritis Program, will involve 12 patients between the ages of 40 and 65 with moderate to severe osteoarthritis in their knees. Bone marrow extracted from the back of their hips will be used as a source of mesenchymal stromal cells, which UHN scientists will grow in an incubator for four to six weeks and inject into the patients’ knees.

The ultimate goal is to cure arthritis, which affects about 4.6 million Canadians and has a huge impact on the Canadian economy in terms of health care costs. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common forms of arthritis, which can affect people of any age and ethnicity. Visit our Toward Treatments page to learn more about the disease and the stem cell research now underway to combat it.

To kick-start the network’s trial, 10 orthopedic surgeons at UHN’s Toronto Western site donated a total of $1.25-million of their own money over five years.

“We felt very strongly that we had to have our own commitment beyond just the time and effort we would all have to put in,” Dr. Nizar Mahomed, director of the Arthritis Program and one of the surgeons who donated $125,000 over five, years told Kelly Grant of the Globe and Mail. “We needed to make a commitment of actual dollars and put skin in the game.”

The doctors’ decision to start the funding campaign, which has now raised around $38 million thanks to other private gifts, was driven by the fact that landing Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) public grant funding has become an increasingly competitive process. As reported in the Globe and Mail, the success rate for applications to CIHR fell to 18% for 2014-2015, down from 33% less than a decade earlier.

But the philanthropic initiative is just the initial step. “The goal here is not to rely purely on philanthropic funding for the research program, but to get pilot data to then be able to prove to CIHR that what we’re proposing is going to be effective,” Dr. Mahomed told the Globe and Mail.

The UHN initiative illustrates a creative solution to a serious problem. While Canada is a world leader in stem cells, Canadian researchers often face challenges translating their discoveries into new therapies and treatments that can be tested through clinical trials. To pave the way for that to happen, the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan, developed by a coalition of researchers, medical professionals, health charities and business leaders, calls for a $1.5-billion private/public investment in stem cell research and development over 10 years. Its goal is for Canada to lead the way in delivering five to 10 safe and effective treatments for chronic diseases within 10 years.

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