University of Calgary

Incredible Impact

Submitted by alumni on Thu, 11/06/2014 - 00:55.

Incredible Impact

Meet Geoff Cumming — the alumnus behind one of the largest single investments to a Canadian university and discover how his gift will transform medical research.
by Deb Cummings, Mike Fisher

Geoff Cumming, Photo by Carlos Amat

Donna Sharman with Ella, her six-year-old granddaughter Neuroscience will Transform the 21st Century
Better knowledge about brain function is needed to treat neurological and psychiatric disorders, lessening their impact on individuals, families and society

It started like any other leisurely Saturday, but, on this crisp November morning, as Donna Sharman began to putter in her kitchen, a blood clot shattered her life.

As her husband, Andy, worked outside putting up Christmas lights on their Calgary home, she fell to the floor, struck by an ischemic stroke. There was no warning. It came quick as lightning. Caused by a blood clot that blocks an artery to the brain, the blood flow is restricted and boom, the body goes into life- threatening crisis. “I wanted to move my leg so that I could get up, but nothing was working,” Donna, now 60, recalls of the stroke last year.

Andy called 9-1-1 immediately. An ambulance rushed Donna to the Foothills Hospital, where a stroke team led by Dr. Michael Hill of the Calgary Stroke Program and the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) was waiting. Stroke is the third leading cause of death in Canada. Those who survive lose about two million brain cells for every minute’s delay in treatment. For Donna, the clock was ticking.

Research Study Benefits Patients

“On the way to surgery, it looked like I was gone,” says Donna. Yet, there was hope. A new clinical research study, dubbed ESCAPE (Endovascular treatment for Small Core and Anterior circulation Proximal occlusion with Emphasis on minimizing CT to recanalization times), was underway and it turned out to be crucial for Donna’s outcome.

The study examines if small stent-like devices, called stentrievers, used in the treatment of acute ischemic stroke are more effective than other means. As was the case for Donna, stentrievers have demonstrated efficacy in quickly restoring blood flow in the brain. Successful angioplasty surgery then removed Donna’s dangerous clot.

Donna was able to return home in only five days. She attributes her strong recovery to the medical team, her religious faith, willpower and the HBI-supported stroke study. ESCAPE is still underway; its aim is to include 400 patients in Canada, the United States and Europe. Results are expected to be ready by the fall of 2015.

ESCAPE Participant Gives Back

Motivated by her experience, Donna has since taken peer-supporter training through INSPIRES (Inpatient Support Program in Recovery from Stroke) at the Foothills Hospital to help other stroke victims and caregivers. She is also volunteering to participate in other stroke studies.

“Without this experimental surgery, my outcome may have been very different,” she says. “I learned first-hand the importance of research.”

One in four Albertans will experience a stroke by the time they turn 80. Clinician scientists with the HBI and their colleagues across the province are working to improve the accessibility and speed of treatment for stroke patients in Alberta.

Last June’s funding announcement for the University of Calgary’s newly named Cumming School of Medicine will propel forward this kind of life-saving research.

“The funding announcement gave me hope for anyone who might find themselves in a similar situation with a stroke,” says Donna. “It is heartwarming to know that research is furthering care for others.”

Studies Leads to Better Health Care

The ESCAPE study and Donna’s surgery demonstrate how the HBI plays a lead role in developing research that contributes to improved health care.

Calgary will remain a priority and benefit from ongoing research. “We are constantly testing both new diagnostics and experimental therapies in the local population in areas including stroke, depression and brain injury,” says HBI Director Samuel Weiss, PhD’83. “This means new initiatives that offer tremendous hope for better outcomes and a higher quality of life.”

Weiss has done groundbreaking work. In 1985, along with Dr. Fritz Sladeczek, he discovered the metabotropic glutamate receptor, now a major target for pharmaceutical research and development for neurological disease therapies. In 1992, he discovered neural stem cells in the brains of adult mammals, leading to new approaches for brain cell replacement and repair. His current work now aims to use findings from stem cell research to develop improved therapies for brain tumors.

This year, as the HBI celebrates its 10th anniversary, new Healthy Brain Aging laboratories are under construction to support collaborative research in the areas of stroke, dementia and movement disorders. Researchers applying leading-edge brain imaging and stimulation technologies, as well as clinical trials in their studies, will work together closely in this new space.The TAMARATT lung suite, one of the Snyder Institutes unique core resources, has resulted in the nation’s largest recruitment of patients for clinical trials in airways studies.

“We’re on the front lines of research right here in Calgary, developing our own therapies, as well as others that we work on with institutions across the province, the country and internationally,” says Weiss. “The HBI is here to be an authoritative voice in neuroscience, providing knowledge and insight today — as well as research to inform future approaches to the prevention and treatment of neurological and mental illnesses and disorders.”

The institute is an internationally recognized centre in brain and mental health research and education, so its work has potential impact far beyond Calgary.

In the past decade, the HBI has established itself as a research leader in Canada and internationally. During its first five years, the institute sought to create a culture of collaboration, explains Weiss.

The second five years saw the institute become a force within the Canadian landscape of neuroscience, so that people now speak of Calgary among the top four centres that include Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal,” he says.

Today, the HBI consists of more than 120 scientists and clinician- scientists dedicated to advancing brain and mental health research and education. Graduate students and post-doctoral fellows training with the institute number about 300.

HBI Looks to the Future

Looking to the future, Weiss expects advances in image-guided stimulation technologies will play a big role in therapeutic medicine. “We believe these therapies will allow clinicians to use magnetic and ultrasound stimulation to treat depression, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and dementia in a way that will be transformative,” he says.

To understand the brain, you have to be able to image its structure, physiology and function using neuro-recording technologies. Neuro-stimulation technologies attempt to activate and deactivate certain pathways to change and improve brain function, Weiss explains. “It’s a marriage of technology and translating outcomes that will dramatically transform how we understand, treat and prevent brain and mental health disorders.”

Dr. Garnette Sutherland, a neurosurgeon and HBI member, is a pioneer in the advancement of brain imaging and surgical innovations to improve outcomes in neurological patients, according to Weiss. This year, the Space Foundation’s Space Technology Hall of Fame honoured Sutherland and four organizations, including the Cumming School of Medicine, for developing an image-guided neurosurgical robot called neuroArm.

Surgeons control neuroArm’s two robotic arms from a workstation. It is able to operate in conjunction with real-time MR imaging, allowing surgeons to manipulate tools with considerable precision and accuracy. “Building upon [Sutherland’s] efforts, image-guided, non-invasive approaches will revolutionize the treatment of neurological and mental illness,” says Weiss.

Moving into its next 10 years, the HBI will continue to translate discoveries into innovative healthcare solutions that could ultimately prevent and manage brain and mental health disorders in the future.

“The Cumming donation will allow us to develop and explore new transformative areas of brain and mental health,” adds Weiss. “It could lead to new discoveries that improve our understanding of brain function and brain disorder.”

By Mike Fisher