In the summer of 2015, a 73-year-old Canadian man, Charles Bernique, doubled over while eating a birthday lunch with his wife. What was initially thought to be extreme food poisoning turned out, in fact, to be a burst esophagus, which led to a severe infection ravaging his frail body.
Diagnosed with septic shock, a potentially fatal condition in which all the organs in the body begin to fail because the immune system has gone into overdrive to fight off severe infection, the grandfather of five from Ontario, Canada, found himself battling for life in the intensive care unit of The Ottawa Hospital.
In the world’s first attempt to treat septic shock with stem cells, Mr. Bernique received stem cell treatment as part of an ongoing trial at the hospital. He is one of nine patients to undergo this experimental therapy. “Looking back at how sick I was, my recovery is nothing short of miraculous,” he states.
Elderly people with coexisting illnesses and an already weakened immune system are most at risk from septic shock. There is currently no known remedy to counteract the body’s reaction to this catastrophic condition. Also called blood poisoning, sepsis is characterized by a chaotic response in the body where the immune system attacks tissues and organs. Widespread inflammation, leaking blood vessels, abnormal clotting, and dramatic drops in blood pressure are some of the symptoms doctors must manage. In its most severe form, depending on the virulence of the infecting organism, sepsis can rapidly progress to septic shock and be fatal in a matter of hours.
Sepsis does not discriminate. In developing countries, it accounts for as many as 60 to 80 percent of lives lost each year. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that sepsis affected more than 600,000 people in the year 2000 and more than 1 million people in 2008. Sepsis accounted for more deaths than myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) and was fatal in more than 200,000 people in 2007.
At The Ottawa Hospital, Mr. Bernique was placed in a drug-induced coma to help manage his septic shock. In consultation with specialists, his family decided to enter him in an ongoing clinical trial named Cellular Immunotherapy for Septic Shock (CISS). Combined with conventional treatment, Mr. Bernique received an intravenous dose of anonymous-donor mesenchymal stem cells. These cells have the unique ability to encourage the immune system to heal damaged tissue rather than simply producing new cells.
The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute’s Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre and her team found that stem cells showed incredible promise for treatment of septic shock during animal trials. There was compelling data that indicated a tripling of the survival rate in animal models, and the magnitude of the response in curtailing organ injury was impressive. A surprising discovery by the research team was that the stem cells also helped clear the body of the attacking bacteria.
Until the CISS trial, which began in 2012, is completed, the team at The Ottawa Hospital is guarded in their optimism that the “building blocks” of the human body (stem cells) will one day be used as a standard treatment for septic shock. Meanwhile, Charles Bernique is back at home with his wife and dog, grateful to be alive and privileged to be a part of medical history.