A team of University of Calgary (U of C) researchers involved in an international scleroderma study have made a remarkable breakthrough, paving the way for life-changing transplants for people living with the disease.
Scleroderma is a rare and deadly autoimmune disease that can manifest itself in many ways. For some patients, the disease causes the skin to tighten and firm up.
Inside the body, connective tissue also tightens and can damage internal organs, including the esophagus and lungs.
Edmonton’s Miaya Killips, 32, was diagnosed with scleroderma about four years ago.
“At first, we were in denial… and then when I tested for an antibody, I sat in my car and cried,” she remembered.
Conventional treatments didn’t work for Kilips and her survival rate was low. Conventional medicine could only slow the progression of the disease.
“She had a 50 per cent chance of dying within five years,” rheumatologist Dr. Sharon Le Clercq said.
At the time, Killips was seriously considering a trip to the United States or Russia to have a stem cell transplant, a treatment option she believed was not available in Canada.
Using a patient’s own stem cells combined with a high dose of chemotherapy, the treatment can be highly effective.
In the U.S., that treatment costs upwards of $160,000. In Russia, that same treatment was cheaper, but still pricey at $55,000.
WATCH BELOW: A Spruce Grove woman has systemic scleroderma, which affects the skin first and is terminal. As Su-Ling Goh reports, her last hope is a treatment that isn’t offered in Canada.
What Killips didn’t know was that around the same time, U of C researchers had made a remarkable development in scleroderma research.
They could now offer her that same stem cell transplant in her own province at no cost to her.
“It is extremely rewarding for me as a physician and researcher to see patients who were gradually worsening, the previous treatments were only able to slow down the progression, now to be stabilized or improved,” U of C researcher Dr. Jan Storek said.
The U.S.-led study out of Duke University included seven medical centres in the United States, and only one Canadian centre.
Storek said six Canadian patients have undergone the stem cell transplant, including Killips.
“Surviving long term is higher after this procedure compared to after conventional therapy and quality of life is better after this procedure, on average compared to previous therapies,” Storek explained.
“There is an approximately 30 per cent difference in the survival rate.”
It has been a year since Killips had the surgery. She credited doctors for giving her hope and a new outlook on life.
“I owe my life to these doctors. If I didn’t have this treatment, I’d probably be a lot closer at death’s door than I’m ready to welcome at 32,” she said.
“Family wasn’t in our future… and now we have the potential of maybe having a family through surrogacy.”