An Ottawa doctor and scientist has been awarded more than half a million dollars for ground-breaking research into using umbilical stem cells to fight chronic lung disease in premature babies.

It is research that Dr. Bernard Thébaud calls a game-changer.  Right now, Dr. Thébaud’s work is in the early stages but there are indications that this could dramatically help the outcome for babies who are born weeks before they are due.  And, the protective power of these stem cells may have multiple applications.

May 24th is the day that Olivia Eberts should have been born.  But she and her twin brother Liam decided to come into the world 115 days early at just 23 weeks and 4 days gestation.

“Liam passed away at 3 weeks,” says his mother, Jamie Eberts, “He unfortunately didn't make it; he was much sicker than Olivia.”

Olivia has had her struggles, too.  Born at just over one pound, she's had heart surgery, kidney problems and lung problems from the artificial help to keep her tiny lungs working.

There’s a lot of issues that come along with being born as young as they are,” says Jamie, “and it's going to be a lifelong battle for her and we don't know what the future will bring.”

Dr. Bernard Thébaud is working on that future.   Dr. Thébaud, a neonatologist and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and CHEO, and professor at the University of Ottawa, is doing research into the possibility of using stem cells from the umbilical cord to combat lung disease in premature babies.

“What we see in lab is very promising,” he says, “We think this will be a game changer, because the way these cells act is like something we have never seen before.” 

Right now, 40% of all premature babies have a lung disease called bronchopulmonary dysplasia or BPD.  It can cause a lifetime of problems, even death.  And there is no treatment.  With funds from the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Dr. Thébaud hopes to find a treatment using these miracle stem cells. 

“We have harnessed the healing potential of stem cells that we can take out of the umbilical cord,” Dr. Thébaud adds.

Thébaud is also examining the impact these stem cells can have on septic shock in premature babies and their potential for helping with brain functioning in the babies.

“We think these cells will improve the overall outcome of these pre-term babies. Now we have to make sure this is happening in a proper way and allow them to fulfill their promise.”

Treatment would have to start, about a week after birth.  So while Olivia may not benefit, her parents are still on board with the research

Tim Eberts is her father, “The thought that other kids that will come through here could be helped by it, that's encouraging for us and we'd like to be involved in it.”

Olivia is getting stronger.  She now weighs 6 and a half pounds but will still be in hospital for a while yet.

Dr. Thébaud hopes to start his clinical trials in two years’ time.