Renowned U of A medical researcher to head first national transplant research program

Initiative brings researchers from across country together to help Canadians waiting for transplants

Janet Harvey - 22 April 2013

Today's announcement that Lori West from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry has been tasked with leading Canada's new transplant research program buoys the Radbourne family.

When Adelaide Radbourne was waiting for a heart transplant, her mother Chloe felt absolutely powerless. "It was honestly the most humbling experience of my life," she remembers with emotion. "To wonder every day whether your child was going to live, and to know that the only solution was to wait for another child to die."

Adelaide received her heart transplant at the Stollery Children's Hospital at the age of 6 months and today is a "busy, bossy, loving little girl" of almost four years - a preschooler, budding ballerina and soccer player. The Radbournes must still travel from their Grande Prairie home to Edmonton every three months to meet with Adelaide's organ transplant team and Adelaide will need immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of her life. But according to Chloe it is a small price to pay for the miracle of her daughter's new heart. And she is optimistic that a new national transplant research program will help pave the way for more families across Canada to experience miracles like Adelaide's.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) marked the launch of National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week with the announcement of the Canadian National Transplant Research Program (CNTRP). The CNTRP is designed to increase organ and tissue donation in Canada and enhance the survival and quality of life of Canadians who receive transplants. Lori West, a researcher at the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and the cardiologist who first treated Adelaide and helped prepare her for transplant, will lead the program. Several other U of A researchers are also part of this national research network; James Shapiro will lead a project on "Ex vivo organ transplant protection and repair", Atul Humar leads one called "Viral pathogenesis in transplantation: prediction, discovery and optimization of risk", and Tim Caulfield heads a project called "Ethical, economic, legal and social (EELS) issues in transplantation". The program brings together 105 investigators and 86 collaborators from across the country to carry out research and develop resources to help Canadian transplant patients and those waiting for tissue or organ transplants.

"This is a unique initiative," said West. "We've never had a transplant-specific program with the potential to affect the lives of so many people suffering from malignancies and end-stage organ failure. The impact of transplantation as a field to Canadians with severe and chronic diseases is enormous."

The statistics are staggering: 4,500 Canadians are on waiting lists for organ transplants and many of these people will die before receiving one. In 2010, for example, nearly one-quarter of candidates for heart and liver transplants died without receiving transplant surgeries. In addition, 40% of patients with leukemia or other blood-related diseases were without bone-marrow donors. The economic impact of transplantation is also extraordinary. For example, every kidney transplant performed saves the health system more than $60,000 per year.

The CNTRP will transform the field of transplantation by addressing the barriers to donation therefore increasing the number of available organs, improving the quality and viability of donated organs and grafts, and improving long-term survival and quality of life of transplant patients. It is the first program in the world to unite and integrate the solid organ transplant, bone marrow transplant and the donation and critical care research communities together in a ground-breaking national research endeavour.

West noted that the CIHR panel which provided peer review for the proposal called the program uniquely Canadian, an innovative approach to enhancing a national transplant system that would be difficult to achieve anywhere else. "One of the key strengths of this proposal is that every part of Canada, involving different researchers, sociologic fields, emerging researchers, and established researchers are a part of this consortium," the review stated. "It would be difficult to gather such an accomplished and collegial group of people in any other country. The program represents an innovative approach to enhancing a national transplant system and is truly original."

The Canadian National Transplant Research Program will receive more than $23 million in funding. This includes $13.85 million from CIHR in partnership with Canadian Blood Services, Canadian Liver Foundation, Cystic Fibrosis Canada, Fonds de recherche du Québec - Santé, Genome British Columbia and the Kidney Foundation of Canada. The CNTRP has raised an additional $10 million from other partners including industry, transplant centres, other universities and organ procurement organizations from across the country.

The funding was announced in Ottawa by the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, federal Minister of Health. Hélène Campbell, a double-lung transplant recipient who has appeared on the Ellen Degeneres Show to raise awareness about organ donation, was also on hand for the announcement.