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St. Michael’s Hospital announces plans to create world’s leading treatment and research centre for multiple sclerosis, “Canada’s disease”

Toronto, November 22, 2017

By Leslie Shepherd

Dr. Xavier Montalban
Dr. Xavier Montalban

St. Michael’s Hospital today announced plans to build the world’s leading treatment and research centre for multiple sclerosis.

The BARLO MS Centre will occupy the entire top two floors—about 25,000 square feet—of the hospital’s new 17-story Peter Gilgan Patient Care Tower under construction in the heart of downtown Toronto.

St. Michael’s already has the largest multiple sclerosis clinic in Canada, with about 7,000 patients, and is home to some of the world’s leading MS clinicians and researchers.

MS is known as “Canada’s disease” because the country has the highest prevalence of the neurological disease in the world. One in every 340 Canadians lives with MS. It affects three times as many women as men and strikes people in the prime of their lives, as the average age of onset is 31.

“Our goal in creating the world’s premier multiple sclerosis centre is to stop the disease and provide the best clinical care and outstanding research,” said Dr. Xavier Montalban, the world-renowned Spanish clinician and researcher who was recruited to St. Michael’s this summer to lead the centre.

“We will give our patients the best possible care from the moment they are diagnosed in our new world’s best centre of excellence. Every day, three more Canadians are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Early diagnosis means we can start people on promising new treatments and give them hope they can live fulfilling and productive lives.”

The BARLO MS Centre is expected to open in 2020. Its mission is: patient-centred, personalized care, delivered in an inspiring environment, by the very best integrated teams, applying and generating leading-edge research.

Today’s announcement kicks off the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation campaign to raise $30 million to build the BARLO MS Centre, named for the two families who each donated $10 million: John and Jocelyn Barford and Jon and Nancy Love. The foundation has pledged to raise a matching $10 million.

Dr. Montalban said the centre will offer “one-stop care” for patients who will be diagnosed, treated and offered the opportunity to participate in research, all in the same location. They will see not only their neurologists and nursing team in the same place, but also a broad interprofessional support team of social workers, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists and other medical professionals.

MS is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. It is unpredictable and can cause symptoms such as extreme fatigue, lack of co-ordination, weakness, tingling, impaired sensation, vision problems, bladder problems, cognitive impairment and mood changes.

Dr. Montalban said that because of the growing awareness of the impact MS has on a patient’s mental health, the centre will also focus on improved access to neuropsychology and specialists who focus on how the brain and the rest of the nervous system influence a person’s cognition and behavior.

“I’m thrilled that the BARLO MS Centre will be an important hub housing world-class experts in the MS field dedicated to the best care and treatment for Canadians living with MS,” said Sylvia Leonard, Interim President and CEO at the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada. “The kind of integrated care that MS clinics like the BARLO MS Centre will provide is paramount to the day-to-day life of a person living with MS. It’s rare for multiple medical services specializing in the care of people living with MS to be situated in one place."

Dr. Montalban said he also hoped that eventually the BARLO MS Centre would have an “independent living laboratory,” an apartment/living space where people with mobility and/or cognitive difficulties could learn how to adapt their movements to their surroundings.

The centre will have its own infusion clinic, so that patients can receive more of the new treatments that have been developed in the last decade, many of which are given intravenously.

And, Dr. Montalban said, there will be an increased emphasis on telemedicine, so that patients don’t always have to travel into downtown Toronto.

Dr. Tom Parker, the physician-in-chief of St. Michael’s, described Dr. Montalban’s arrival from the renowned MS Centre of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, as a “game-changer” for multiple sclerosis treatment and research in Canada.

“World-class physicians attract other researchers and graduate students who wish to collaborate on new and groundbreaking work, which leads to better research, greater collaboration and life-changing results,” Dr. Parker said. “That’s another reason why these new facilities are essential.”

Dr. Parker noted that St. Michael’s already has one of the most promising young MS researchers on staff, Dr. Jiwon Oh, a neurologist and multiple sclerosis expert who joined the hospital in May 2014 after completing her fellowship in MS and PhD in clinical investigation at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Oh is one of the only researchers in the world using multiple advanced imaging techniques to look at the impact of MS on spinal cord tissue in the hopes of finding biomarkers that will help clinicians monitor and more accurately predict how MS will progress in individual patients.

St. Michael’s is also conducting an international search for a basic scientist to study multiple sclerosis at a cellular and molecular level in the hopes of finding out what causes MS and then how to stop or delay the onset of symptoms. Growing evidence suggests that Vitamin D levels play a part, which would explain the high prevalence of the disease in Canada. Smoking, exposure to certain viruses, obesity and genetics may also contribute.

And, while there are 14 disease-modifying treatments for the relapsing form of MS, where people have distinct attacks or relapses of symptoms, Canada has yet to approve one for the progressive form, where the disease steadily worsens over time.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in more than 29 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.