A stem cell transplant has given a Kemptville woman a new lease on life, after being on life support twelve times. The man behind it all is Dr. Harold Atkins, the very same doctor who has been using stem cell transplants here in Ottawa to treat people with Multiple Sclerosis.
Anne Scott said she had just one request when she met with Dr. Harry Atkins: to attend her daughter’s wedding. He exceeded those expectations. Fifteen years later, she is alive and pretty much symptom free.
“It’s a lovely day,” Anne Scott says to her husband Wendell, as they stroll in the park across from the Ottawa Hospital.
Lately, every day is a good day for Anne Scott, after facing death no less than a dozen times.
“It got really bad,” the 58-year-old recalls of the disease that ravaged her body, “I ended up being on life support 12 times, 9 times before transplant and 3 times after.”
Anne suffers from something called Myasthenia Gravis, an auto immune disease like multiple sclerosis or lupus. In most cases, it is fairly mild and treatable with medications, but not in her case. It attacked the muscles she uses to swallow and breathe.
“With Anne, for whatever reason, her immune system was tough to bring to heal,” says Dr. Elizabeth Pringle, Anne’s neurologist at the Ottawa Hospital, “and that’s why we brought out big guns in form of Harry Atkins and his magical procedure.” Dr. Harry Atkins had just started using stem cell transplants in the early 2000’s to treat patients with MS, with good results. It was 2001 that Anne underwent the procedure for her disease after all other options had failed.
“We had this idea it would work,” recalls Dr. Atkins, “but it’s always a happy time when we know things worked as we predict they would.”
Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation is arduous and risky. Chemotherapy is used first to wipe out the existing immune system. Then the patient’s own stems cells are purified and put back in a few weeks later.
“Eventually a new immune system grows back,” says Dr. Atkins, “and what we have learned in 15 years or so, is that when the immune system grows back, it grows back in better shape.”
Dr. Atkins recently published the results of his procedure on 7 patients with severe Myasthenia Gravis; all of whom are doing remarkably well. “All of the patients have no signs or evidence of Myasthenia activity anymore,” Dr. Atkins says, “most of the patients have that situation without needing any further treatment of any sort. There are a few patients, a minority, that are still on a small dose of medication, not necessarily for the Myasthenia.”
“We always have to stop ourselves from using the “c” word or “cure”,” says Dr. Pringle, “because that puts a curse on it but so far, they are all doing extremely well without any Myasthenia specficic treatment so it’s been a game changer for a lot of patients with severe, severe disease.”
Anne Scott made it to her daughter’s wedding and hasn’t slowed down since. Ever grateful for her new lease on life, she named her dog Atkins.
“It’s a bragging thing, right?” says Dr. Atkins, “Not too many of my colleagues have dogs or pets named after them.”
Dr. Atkins has since done these stem cell transplants on several more patients with the same disease as Anne’s and also on 45 patients with multiple sclerosis. The results are exciting and hopeful but he says much research still needs to be done.
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