"...Hope is what this program is all about"

By P.A. Sévigny, The Suburban

Over the past ten years, research done by a dedicated group of scientific professionals in the basement laboratories of Montreal’s east-end Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital has become a beacon of hope for thousands of people sick with leukemia and other blood-borne cancers. Not only has Doctor Denis Claude Roy’s applied research saved hundreds of lives in and around Montreal, it has also attracted the attention of cancer research specialists throughout the world.

Only a decade ago, most blood borne cancers were considered to be a virulent and usually fatal disease. Once told you had leukemia or any other comparable cancer, you were expected to go home, settle your affairs and then do what you could to enjoy what little bit of life you had left. Now, because of stem cell transplant therapy as developed by Doctor Roy and his colleagues, you must still take the time to settle your affairs because you have to get ready to fight for the rest of your life.

“In fact,” said Doctor Roy, “…hope is a lot of what this program is all about.”

While much has been said and written about the promise and possibilities offered by specific stem cell research projects, more than a few problems remain to be solved before such research can be developed into a standard and universally accepted medical approach to combat specific ailments. As in the rest of what are now routine organ transplants, donor rejection is still a serious problem when the transplant is confronted with the host’s own immune system. While anti-resistance drugs can overcome most transplant resistance, blood-borne cancers offer a particular set of problems. When a cancer affects a person’s entire blood formula, the only possible cure is a new blood formula courtesy of a compatible donor who is usually a close blood relative such as a brother or a sister. However, what can be done for those who cannot find a completely compatible donor? Doctor Roy and his research have done a lot to answer that particular question insofar as their work proves that as long as there is some compatibility between host and donor, blood-borne cancer patients have more than just a hope for survival.

Though a standard blood transfusion still requires some elementary precautions (RH factors, compatible blood types etc.), stem cell transplants are vastly more complicated because of possible rejection issues which pose a serious and probably fatal threat to the patient. While compatibility is always a factor for future cell cultures, Roy solves the rejection problem by effectively eliminating the rejection factors in both the donor and the host’s blood formula. Therapy is neither simple nor free of risk as the process requires an initial series of chemotherapy treatments that effectively wipes out the patient’s own blood formula. If there is no possibility of a stem cell transplant, the patient is doomed as compatible stem cells must be found to begin to build him (or her) a new blood system.

“This is where we’re doing cutting edge science,” said Roy. “Instead of using molecules (as in standard chemotherapies), we’re using cells developed in nature over millions of years to build a whole new blood formula for the patient.”

Once the donor’s blood cells are collected, they are subjected to an electro-chemical process that alters and effectively neutralizes selected immuno-resistant cells within the donor’s blood formula. Once the cells have lost their capacity to resist their new environment, they can now be cultivated into a new formula and made ready for a transplant into the patient whose own blood formula has been previously destroyed by the initial intensive chemotherapy.

Montreal lawyer William Brock recalls the moment when the blood bag full of a cloudy pink and blood flecked solution containing his brother’s blood cells was connected to the drip system by the side of his hospital bed.

“I knew that within the hour I would on my way to getting better or within days I would be dead.”

While his brother’s blood formula gave Brock his second chance, it also bought him the time required to build a brand new immune system which Doctor Roy said could take up to 5 years. While complaining about Québec’s Medicare has become something of a national sport, Brock has nothing but good things to say about the working professionals at the Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital. This hard-core civil litigation lawyer still chokes up when he remembers the fifth floor nurses in the hospital where Denis Claude Roy saved his life. When he was so sick he could only suck on ice chips for a bit of water, he recalls sick and lonely nights when the nurse on the night shift would come in to hold his hand and tell him not to worry because he would soon be getting better.

“They’re angels,” he said, “…and I’ll never forget them.”

While Brock is working hard to raise an easy $5 million for further research in blood-borne cancers, the hospital also requires funds for their new research and development facilities. While the facility’s original budget was expected to reach $10 million, the success of Doctor Roy’s research and several new development initiatives have forced hospital authorities to reconsider their project. Jean-Claude Baudinet, the PDG (Président-Directeur Général) of the hospital’s own foundation said the hospital shouldn’t have any trouble raising the $20 million now required for their new research complex. Baudinet knows what’s at stake because his wife owes her life to Roy’s applied research and therapy.

“The first few days are the worst,” he said, “…because you don’t know if the transplant is working, but even a day makes a difference when you know you’re getting better.”

Baudinet, a successful Montreal businessman, knew he had to do something for the hospital after watching his wife playing golf just one month after she received her transplant. Not only is he doing what he can for the hospital’s foundation but he is also using political contacts to their full advantage. Contrary to American research centres who have had their government funding cut off due to the right wing evangelical groups who dominate the nation’s ruling Republican party, Baudinet said Québec’s Economic Development Minister Raymond Bachand knows all about Doctor Roy’s research and has told Baudinet he would do what must be done to come up with a further $10 million for the hospital’s new research laboratories.

“Bachand knows what this kind of development means for Québec’s new economy,” he said. “This is the kind of development that could mean millions in additional spin-offs for the province’s pharmaceutical sector.”

It also provides hope for millions of people who have nothing but a fatally compromised blood formula between tomorrow morning and eternity.

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