A league of his own

Up-and-coming lab director poised to make medical breakthrough

It’s a well-known fact in medical research that major advances are time consuming and require dedication. On average, it takes roughly 17 years to see research evidence reach the clinic.  


Well, that was a little too long for Dr. Aaron Phillips, primary investigator and lab director at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute. He and his team recently re-purposed a neurostimulator for spinal cord injury patients with cardiovascular disorders, allowing them to regain function. To date, he and his team—a veritable who’s who of world-leading post docs and clinicians—have proven the technology. Oh, and they did it in 27 months.

 
Since arriving at the Libin Institute in September 2018, Phillips has made it a point to make a dramatic shift toward patient-centred outcomes. He is in the process of launching a clinical trial into the potential therapy. 


“People not familiar with spinal cord injury often focus on a person in a wheelchair, and we think they want to get out of that wheelchair as their primary goal,” he says. “However, there are huge hidden clinical consequences for these patients that they’ll rank well above walking again.”


Those concerns range from bladder, bowel and sexual function to cardiovascular stability and a consistent blood pressure Thanks to the neurostimulator, the common issue of orthostatic hypotension, or extremely low blood pressure, Phillips is starting to see major improvements in patients’ health. 


The device works by sending electrical currents to cells within the sympathetic nervous system, re-activating cardiovascular functions, and, as a result, transforming patients’ lives in radical fashion.


“With this technology we’ve raised the ceiling,” says Phillips. “We’ve changed where people with spinal cord injuries can get to during recovery, and we don’t know how high the ceiling is. People are moving after decades of being chronically paralyzed. Their blood pressure is now stable so they can be upright without feeling lightheaded. How far we can take them? We don’t know yet.”


Phillips’ dedication and ingenuity has directly generated approximately $2 million in funding since 2017. In addition, his research is published in high-ranking medical journals such as Neurology and JAMA Neurology. 
He also founded a company, StimSherpa Inc., to both increase the speed of regulatory approval and scalability when spinal cord patients are implanted with the device. 


With a passion for interdisciplinary co-operation to achieve greater patient outcomes, Phillips has a distinctly 'we not me' approach in his lab.


“We don’t work in silos, we work together,” he says, adding he has partnered with other health institutes at the Cumming School of Medicine, including the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health.


“To work across the translational spectrum, you need buy-in from people living with the condition, their families, the physicians providing direct care and the institutes. Libin is uniquely collaborative.”


One patient who has felt the positive effects of Phillips’ collaborative approach to convalescence is Richi Gill, an upper GI doctor and bariatric surgeon. In the summer of 2018, Gill was paralyzed following a freak boogie board accident while on vacation in Hawaii. Like many patients Phillips has observed, Gill suffered from hypotension, often resulting in fainting, dizziness and poor sleep hygiene. Immediately he was put onto medication, which had varying levels of success. 


However, after being implanted with a neurostimulator in November 2018, he was quickly able to quit his medication and regain a quality of life through regulated blood pressure. Gill’s other symptoms faded away, as well. Today, he is excited about the future of spinal cord care thanks to people like Phillips.


“That’s not an easy thing to deal with—basic and clinical research—they do a good job to integrate that,” says Gill. “It’s pretty impressive.”


Another impressed physician is cardiac surgeon Dr. Paul Fedak, MD, PhD, the director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute. 


Despite working with Phillips for less than one year, he already knows his lab is going to be making medical advances that will be discussed for years to come.


“Not only can he see the big picture, he can manage the fine details,” says Fedak. “That’s someone very special who will do groundbreaking science and change the world. That person is Aaron. The high-quality work that he is doing will soon get the attention of the world.”


Phillips conservatively estimates that within 10 years neurostimulator implants will become standard care for people with spinal cord injury, a time line he is keen to shrink. 


“The reason why I dedicated my career to medical research was to make discoveries that would rapidly improve health on a population scale,” he says. 


“To be able to do that is what makes me want to do this every day. I don’t even consider what I do a job. It’s really a passion as opposed to a job.”