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Treatment developed at The Ottawa Hospital can halt MS progression and potentially reverse symptoms

Ground-breaking stem cell procedure restores patient’s mobility and joy for life

Treatment developed at The Ottawa Hospital can halt MS progression and potentially reverse symptoms

Geneviève Bétournay received innovative treatment for multiple sclerosis at The Ottawa Hospital that involves harvesting and treating patients’ own stem cells to remove traces of disease.

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When Geneviève Bétournay developed blurry vision and pain in her hips 12 years ago, she was shocked to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a condition where the body’s immune system attacks its own central nervous system, brain and spinal cord.

“It was a scary, emotional time,” recalls Bétournay. “Getting a chronic illness prompted some soul-searching and a lot of questions.”

She was only 23 years old, starting a master’s degree in organic chemistry and planning for a career in research or academia when she received the devastating news. She hoped she had the more common “relapsing-remitting” form of the autoimmune disease, where attacks of neurological symptoms come and go.

However, when it became clear she had a more “aggressive” form of MS, causing ever-worsening headaches, muscle spasms, difficulties walking, a loss of dexterity in her fingers and blind spots in the middle of both eyes, “it was definitely challenging,” she says.

Life-changing moment

At that point, the search for help brought her to Dr. Mark Freedman and a team of MS specialists at The Ottawa Hospital.

“It was one of those lucky life-changing moments when I made that call,” says Bétournay. After two different rounds of treatment failed, in 2013 she underwent a stem-cell transplant – pioneered at The Ottawa Hospital – that changed everything.

It’s priceless what I have gained. Simply put, it saved my life, or perhaps you could say it gave me a second one.

Geneviève Bétournay, multiple sclerosis patient

Over 20 years ago, Dr. Freedman, a neurologist, and Dr. Harold Atkins, a blood specialist at the hospital, had proposed the idea of reprogramming the body’s immune system to halt the progression of disease in people with more active forms of early MS.

Today, they are known for developing this ground-breaking treatment that involves harvesting and treating patients’ own stem cells to remove traces of disease, essentially wiping out their immune system and creating a new one using “cleaned” stem cells.

“Not only are you stopping the disease process, but you’re also giving many young folks a chance at life that they didn’t have before,” says Dr. Freedman, director of MS Research at The Ottawa Hospital and professor of neurology at the University of Ottawa.

Dr. Freedman decided to focus on MS when he was finishing his neurology residency in the mid-1980s and had a “line-in-the-sand” conversation with an MS patient. “[The patient] said, ‘They don’t know what causes it, they don’t have any treatments, why don’t you research it?’”

That “aha moment” eventually brought Dr. Freedman to The Ottawa Hospital in 1993, which gave him what he needed to “build the clinic and achieve the excellence that we’ve been able to over almost 30 years.”

This revolutionary treatment allows the body’s “repair crews” to go to work on lesions and scarring left by past damage.

Cases like Bétournay’s show that MS can be arrested in its tracks, Dr Freedman says. “We’ve been following some patients for over 20 years, and they’ve never had a return of disease activity.”

According to Dr. Freedman, stem-cell procedures should be seen as a last resort because they come with risks. For example, Bétournay learned that she could become infertile because of the procedure. She had some of her eggs harvested and received a shot that allowed some eggs to go into “hiding” during treatment.

While Bétournay’s recovery from the stem-cell transplant took the better part of a year, it was worth the wait. The treatment not only stopped the progression of her disease and alleviated some symptoms, it also allowed for some repair: from improvements in her vision to being able to jump, dance and walk on grass, which had been too destabilizing in the past.

The changes brought her feelings of euphoria and joy “for something that I never thought I’d ever feel again,” she says.

The Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Mark Freedman (left), director of MS Research, and Dr. Harold Atkins, medical director of the Regenerative Medicine Program.

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With a second chance at life, she became an entrepreneur, helping to open and eventually taking over as owner of Art House, an Ottawa café, eatery, bar, event venue and gallery.

She’s passionate about using the arts to affect change and is intentional about practicing a healthy lifestyle – grateful to be well again. She believes if she had not undergone the stem-cell transplant, she’d certainly be in a wheelchair today.

Dr. Freedman says the stem-cell treatment, which could be effective for other autoimmune diseases like myasthenia gravis and scleroderma, has been used to help more than 75 people with MS. The Ottawa Hospital is the only centre in Canada that routinely offers this treatment to MS patients, though he notes it’s only appropriate for those with an aggressive, early form of the disease, which is about 5 per cent of patients.

New therapy trials

Thankfully, other MS therapies have advanced since Dr. Freedman first started practicing in the field. For example, more than 20 drugs have been approved and are considered effective for treating the disease.

Meanwhile, his team is currently conducting some 20 trials into new therapies, including five or six focused on finding a way to repair damage to the body from MS – critical for patients not eligible for a stem-cell transplant.

“We haven’t been able to find one yet,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not trying.”

Since receiving the treatment, Bétournay has been eager to share whatever she can to advance knowledge in the field.

“I have a great deal of gratitude for the doctors and everything The Ottawa Hospital has done for me,” she says. “It’s priceless what I have gained. Simply put, it saved my life, or perhaps you could say it gave me a second one.”


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with The Ottawa Hospital. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.