Thanks to people like Sharon Charlebois, researchers are learning how best to use stem cells, antivirals and blood thinners to treat COVID-19.
Sharon Charlebois doesn’t remember much about the 25 days she spent at The Ottawa Hospital fighting a severe case of COVID-19 in January 2021. Now that she’s recovering at home with her husband, some memories come back to her in flashes.
“I remember the doctor told me that a ventilation helmet might help me avoid intubation,” said Sharon, who was the first patient at the hospital’s Civic Campus to use the helmet. “I remember holding Rebecca’s hand and nearly squeezing it off when they were putting the helmet on because I was so nervous. Rebecca was really, really good to me.”
Rebecca Porteous is a nurse and ICU research coordinator who was often at Sharon’s bedside. Together with Irene Watpool, she is responsible for making sure that every COVID-19 patient at The Ottawa Hospital has the opportunity to participate in research.
“When I was first hospitalized, I vaguely remember Irene talking about studies I could be involved in,” said Sharon. “I asked my husband to call our niece who’s a nurse and see what she thought. When she heard about the treatments being tested, she said, ‘Yes, it’s a really good idea to participate.’”
Sharon took part in several clinical trials during the course of her treatment at The Ottawa Hospital. One tested the antiviral medication remdesivir, while another looked at blood thinners to prevent blood clots. The blood thinner trial has since produced important results that have made a difference around the world.
While in the ICU, Sharon also agreed to participate in a made-in-Ottawa clinical trial of mesenchymal stem / stromal cells (MSCs) for severely ill COVID-19 patients. This innovative trial, co-led by Drs. Duncan Stewart, Shane English, and Dean Fergusson, is designed to see if MSCs from the umbilical cord can help the body’s immune system fight COVID-19 while reducing damage to vital organs. It builds on a previous clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital in patients in severe septic shock – the first trial of its kind in the world.
Sharon was part of the trial’s first phase, which looked at safety and dosing in 9 patients with severe COVID-19. The second phase, which is looking at whether MSCs can improve recovery from COVID-19, is now underway. This part of the trial is expanding to other sites across Canada including Lakeridge Health (Durham, Ontario), St. Michael’s Hospital (Toronto, Ontario) and Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM).
“Biological therapies like stem cells have great potential to treat COVID-19 and many other diseases, but we need to rigorously test them in clinical trials,” said Dr. Stewart, Executive Vice-President of Research at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa. “We’re fortunate that here in Ottawa, we have unique facilities and resources to manufacture these therapies and lead these trials.”
While Sharon’s time in the ICU was incredibly difficult, she can’t say enough about the amazing care she received there. She also appreciated how diligently the staff called her husband and family to keep them up to date.
“The staff in the ICU were just fantastic – they went above and beyond what they needed to do,” said Sharon. “They were always there, asking if I needed anything, if I wanted a drink of water, if I wanted the TV on. They couldn’t do enough for me.”
Her family is grateful for the incredible care Sharon received at The Ottawa Hospital, and for the staff who saved her life.
After weeks spent in hospital without being able to see her family, Sharon was very happy to go home. She still uses a walker and experiences some shortness of breath, but with daily physiotherapy at home she can feel she’s getting stronger.
Sharon hoped that participating in clinical trials would help her recover from COVID-19. But she’s also glad that her participation will inform the care of patients who come after her.
“You know that having COVID-19 is so bad, so if you can help someone else, that’s great,” she said.
COVID-19 research at The Ottawa Hospital is funded by organizations such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Ontario COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund and the Stem Cell Network, as well as The Ottawa Hospital Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. Research at The Ottawa is also possible because of Core Resources such as The Ottawa Hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre and Ottawa Methods Centre.
Caitlin Renneson is a content writer at The Ottawa Hospital.