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McMaster research leads Canada-wide research initiative to address sepsis

McMaster professor of medicine Dr. Alison Fox-Robichaid is the co-leader of a new national network that aims to address sepsis - a deadly condition caused by infection. (Credit: Georgia Kirkos, courtesy of McMaster University)

Sepsis is one of the leading causes of death among COVID-19 patients, but not much is known about it — and a research initiative based out of McMaster University is hoping to change that.

The federal government is giving Sepsis Canada a grant of $5.7 million to develop a national research network on addressing the condition, which is caused by an infection from microbial pathogens such as a virus or bacterium.

The funding, through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), was announced virtually by Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas MP Filomena Tassi on Thursday morning.

“Sepsis Canada brings together around 200 clinicians, researchers, and patient partners across the country, with the mission to raise awareness, save lives, and promote recovery,” Tassi said.

Read more: McMaster awarded another $20M for COVID-19 research

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The novel coronavirus is now considered to be among the microbial pathogens that can cause sepsis, often with deadly results, according to COVID-19 research conducted earlier in the pandemic.

Alison Fox-Robichaud, professor of medicine at McMaster and scientific director of the new network, said sepsis isn’t widely understood, and responses to it are often varied and inconsistent among different health care providers.

“We are prepared to develop a strategic plan to extend our mission beyond this initial funding, with the ultimate goal of assuring that we are able to offer a cure for sepsis,” Fox-Robichaud said.

The research will focus on those who are especially vulnerable to sepsis, including those with chronic health conditions like diabetes, seniors, children, Indigenous populations, and immigrants.

Read more: McMaster doctor expands research project to include coronavirus testing on Hamilton-area farms

Dr. Brian Rowe, scientific director at the CIHR’s Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health, said the mortality rate for sepsis was once more than 50 per cent — a rate that has decreased as research has improved over time.

“Nonetheless, there are many aspects of sepsis that we know less about, and where more evidence is needed,” Rowe said. “The prevention, detection, treatment, and rehabilitation of patients with sepsis and their families is an important contribution to the health care system.”

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WATCH BELOW: (Jan. 17, 2020) Sepsis kills more people than heart disease and cancer

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Sepsis kills more people than heart disease and cancer' Health Matters: Sepsis kills more people than heart disease and cancer
Health Matters: Sepsis kills more people than heart disease and cancer – Jan 17, 2020

The input of families is something that was highlighted during Thursday’s announcement through Kathryn Hendrick, a board member and patient advocate with the Canadian Sepsis Foundation.

She was the primary caregiver for her father, who recently passed away from sepsis that he developed as a complication of prostate cancer.

“I’ve seen first-hand how important it is to recognize and to manage sepsis when it strikes,” Hendrick said.

Over a two-year period, she said her father was regularly admitted to hospital for urinary tract infections, which often led to sepsis and admission to different hospitals with different physicians, where the protocol for managing and treating his sepsis was inconsistent.

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“Trying to communicate effectively with paramedics, with nursing staff, in emergency departments — it’s an ongoing, terrifying challenge,” Hendrick said. “When the standards are not consistent, caregivers are panicked, and ultimately exhausted.”

“My hope is that the Sepsis Network can address the gaps in the delivery of care, in education, in research, from home care through paramedics, emergency, admission, and hopefully recovery.”

The research network will also aim to shed light on how many people in Canada are impacted by sepsis, with a recent study in the journal Lancet estimating that there are 75,000 cases in the country every year, leading to 18,000 deaths.

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