New stem cell transplant unit came too late for Laura Hillier

New stem cell wing in Hamilton to increase accessibility to care for people who need life-saving transplants.

Emma Jones 4 minute read November 23, 2020
Ron and Nancy Clark Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapies Unit

Hamilton Health Sciences’ (HHS) Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre (JHCC) has officially opened a newly expanded unit for patients needing treatment for blood cancers. Hamilton Health Sciences/Youtube

Patients with rare blood disorders will now have better access to treatment, thanks to a new Stem Cell Transplant wing at the Hamilton Health Sciences’ Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre.

The Ron and Nancy Clark Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapies Unit will allow healthcare providers to increase their capacity to treat to a growing cohort of patients. Improvements in technology have made these procedures safe for patients that previously would have been too sick or too old to receive the procedure, creating a growing demand.

“Stem cell transplantation is now a much safer procedure than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago and, because of that, it can be applied to more and more patients,” says Dr. Ralph Meyer, the Vice President of Oncology at Juravinski Hospital. “It creates a need for the facilities and the competencies right across the province.”

The expansion will increase the outpatient bay from 39 to 54 beds and increase the hours of operation from ten hours per day Monday to Friday to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Approximately 90 new staff members, including physicians, nurses, laboratory personnel, nurse practitioners and support staff will be hired on to facilitate the increased capacity.

The start of a solution

The increase in capacity is direly needed as new technologies have increased the range of these life-saving treatments, adding more patients to an already strained system.

In 2015, the Canadian public was caught by the story of Laura Hillier, a patient with acute myeloid leukemia who had to undergo extra rounds of chemotherapy due to the backlog of patients waiting for a spot in the transplant programs. Hillier had already been matched with a donor and was on a wait list for a bed in the stem cell transplant unit at Juravinski Hospital. As demand outstripped the provinces’ capacity to provide treatment, Hillier was met with a series of delays for this life-saving program.

Hillier was granted special permission to receive a transplant at Sick Kids Hospital as an adult,  but after a series of complications, she was unable to undergo the procedure. She passed away in January of 2016, her story highlighting a nightmare of growing wait lists and barriers to access.

Hillier spent the last year of her life campaigning for better access to stem cell transplant therapies. Her name is now on the donor wall of the new Cellular Therapies Unit.

Next generation treatments

Stem cell transplants are used to treat blood cancers such as lymphoma and leukemia. Healthy stem cells —either donated or taken from the patient — are transplanted into a patient and help the bone marrow build healthy new blood cells, according to

Juravinski Hospital also provides an innovative new therapy called antigen receptor T-cell (CAR T-cell) therapy — a procedure that sees a patient’s own immune cells harvested, genetically altered to recognize and attack cancer cells, and then re-transplanted into the patient, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. Due to the complex nature of this treatment, only a limited number of facilities across Canada are able to do it, putting pressure on hospitals, like Juravinski, to increase patient capacity.

“The manipulation…transfers the immune detecting abilities of the cells to attack the patient’s cancer cells. In a sense your immune system, which would be there to fight off viruses and bacteria and other things, is being harnessed to fight off cancer cells,” says Meyer. “This is particularly for patients currently with [specific] types of blood cancer…but it’s speculated that in the future may grow to be a treatment for patients with other types of cancer.”

A concentrated effort

Funding for the 25 million dollar expansion was provided by the Government of Ontario, according to a press release by Hamilton Health Sciences. An additional five million dollars was raised through the hospital’s Tomorrow Stems from You campaign.

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