Wealthy Oilman with Multiple Sclerosis Funds Canadian Studies for Promising MS Therapy

Alice Melão, MSc avatar

by Alice Melão, MSc |

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Canadian oilman Hank Swartout made a fortune as longtime founder and CEO of Precision Drilling. The Calgary native mortgaged his house to start the company, which by the time he left in 2009 had annual sales of $7 billion. But an early diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) at the age of 56 led him to shift gears.

These days, instead of looking for oil and gas, he’s helping researchers find treatments — and ultimately a cure — for the disease.

In an unusual turn of events, a generous gift from Swartout and his wife Carol helped fund the ground work that led to the development of the MinoCIS trial, which proved that the common anti-acne therapy minocycline could safely and effectively treat early MS.

Scientists at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine conducted the trial (NCT00666887), which was co-sponsored by the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and the Toronto-based Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation (MSSRF).

Yet previous studies were necessary for minocycline to reach this point of clinical development. Those studies relied on funding from the Ottawa-based Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), as well as from individual wealthy donors like the Swartouts.

“The doctors give their life to this, and medical research is often a thankless job taking time and sometimes without the results you want,” Swartout said in a news release issued by the Cumming School of Medicine. “The little that we give back is nothing compared to what researchers commit to.”

After meeting the study’s principal investigators, Luanne Metz and Wee Yong, the Swartouts could clearly see the passion and persistence of both researchers. That’s when the Calgary couple decided to support their work — even though, as he said, “medical research is probably the least glamorous thing people can give to. You don’t see instant results.”

Their donation, whose dollar value was not released, allowed the research team to buy an ImageXpress cell imaging and analysis system. This new tool improved their overall work, providing experimental results in 24 hours instead of the time-consuming methods that previously took up to a month to complete.

Recent publication of the study’s positive results in the New England Journal of Medicine comes as a great reward for the Swartout family.

“It’s very gratifying that the small bit we gave could help,” said the retired oilman, who says his condition has progressed slowly over the years, enabling him to enjoy a fairly good quality of life. “It’s humbling to think it comes out of Canada. This research shows that Canada and Calgary can change the world. We have a first-class research facility and it should be supported.”

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