Curing spinal-cord injury life’s goal for Ottawa surgeon

Published: June 7, 2010  |  Source:

OTTAWA-Dr. Eve Tsai has made a real name for herself with her work in the operating room and in the research lab, Matthew Pearson reports.

The tragedy of young lives altered forever by freak accidents or foolish mistakes drives Dr. Eve Tsai to find a cure for spinal-cord injuries.

The causes may vary from car crash to sports mishap, but the result is often the same: a lifetime of paralysis.

“This is something they’re going to have to live with for the rest of their lives and that seems like a huge burden, not only for the patients, but their families as well,” Tsai says.

“To be able to repair that and give people their lives back is really satisfying.”

Tsai specializes in complex surgeries, such as removing spinal tumours and treating spinal-cord injuries.

To aid in her efforts, she has developed an MRI imaging technique that allows surgeons to visualize spinal-cord nerve fibres and to see the difference between the healthy and damaged ones.

“This has allowed us to not only study and learn about these injuries, but also potentially lead to a roadmap in developing targeted therapies,” she says.

The Ottawa Hospital was the first hospital in the world to apply this technique and patients from around the world are being referred here to receive the treatment.

Tsai, who arrived at the hospital in 2006, performs between 200 and 300 surgeries a year.

While some last an hour, more complex operations can take up to 16 hours.

In addition to her long days in the operating room, Tsai is also actively engaged in research, but, she explains, that’s not as common as it once was as doctors all across the continent feel pressured to treat more patients and spend less time in the lab.

“I feel those pressures as well,” she admits.

“I guess the thing that drives me is that I really want to help the people now, but I also really want to help the people in the future, and, if we don’t play a role in the research, you’re not going to develop what needs to be developed to help people in the future.”

Tsai was born in Saskatoon and grew up in Edmonton, which she left — after two years at the University of Alberta — when she got early admission to the University of Toronto’s medical school.

When she was still in high school, she won a scholarship to work in a research lab. It gave her a first-hand look at research and opened a number of doors for her throughout high school and university.

“Because of that great experience, I’ve been trying to encourage that in other people,” she says.

Tsai has supervised more than 30 trainees, including high school and university students and medical residents. She speaks with pride about her young protégés, recounting how several have represented Eastern Ontario at the Canada Wide Science Fair or won awards at their universities.

“It’s really satisfying to encourage these people because hopefully they’ll continue with the research and help even more people in the future,” she says.

If she could get her hands on more research dollars, Tsai says she could bring more young researchers into the lab and get even closer to finding a cure.

“It’s like a win-win situation: If I find a cure, that’s great. If others find the cure, I can apply it,” she says. “I want to make it happen.”

In the meantime, Tsai has established a multidisciplinary research group focused on investigating stem cells, nanotechnology and tissue engineering for spinal-cord repair.

The group has developed tube-like structures to help stabilize damaged areas of the spinal cord and stimulate regeneration. Results in laboratory models have been promising and, after further research, Tsai hopes to eventually test these tube structures in humans.

Tsai completed a medical degree, neurosurgery residency and PhD at the University of Toronto and has won numerous awards, including the 2007 Young Clinician Investigator award from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

After her residency, she spent a year working at a clinic in Cleveland, but said other jobs she considered in the U.S. weren’t as attractive because they lacked a combination of clinical and research work.

She was recruited to Ottawa by Dr. Richard Moulton, chairman of the hospital’s neurosurgery division and someone she knew from her days at U of T.

Her parents had also moved to Ottawa, while her two younger siblings — also both doctors — live in Toronto and Vancouver.

Tsai has no children; when she’s not working, she says, she enjoys meeting friends for dinner. She is also a former world champion of an online computer game called Tropical Swaps, a sort of distant cousin to Tetris.

Tsai, 38, recently landed on Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 list, a national award program honouring 40 Canadians in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors under the age of 40. She was selected out of more than 1,200 nominees.

By Matthew Pearson, The Ottsawa Citizen
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