The construction of a new intensive care unit in the McCaig Tower at the Foothills Medical Centre has created a surplus of available beds and resulted in the creation of a monitored area for patients in specialized therapy.

“One of the things that we’ve done in the ICU, since it’s a fully monitored area able to look after very sick patients, is we’ve taken a couple of the beds and we’ve made them into a very special clinical trials unit,” explained Dr. Christopher Doig, a medical director in the department of critical care medicine.  “It’s very specifically for people who might be with a life threatening illness where they’re receiving a new therapy which might be potentially toxic or have complications we don’t understand.”

 “It can be a monitored environment where they can be safe, they can be closely watched and, at the same time, potentially receive life-saving therapy.”

Josh McQuillin, a 30-year-old from Prince George, B.C., is already reaping the benefits of the makeshift unit. The patient suffers from urea cycle disorder, a condition that creates a buildup of ammonia that can lead to brain damage or death. He recently underwent an injection of a gene therapy vector designed to alter his liver function.

“In this particular case, he’s the second person in the world to have shown a response to that. His body is handling ammonia, from what we can tell, normally,” said Dr. Aneal Khan, an associate professor of medical genetics and pediatrics. “We’re very happy with the result we were able to achieve.”

Khan said the procedure itself was quick but required extensive monitoring of McQuillin post-therapy and the monitored environment of the ICU at Foothills fit the bill. “There are many reasons why this has been done in Calgary first. One of the reasons is this collaboration to allow these sorts of events to help patients and to take steps forward in improving their health.”

Prior to the therapy, McQuillin took 36 pills a day and was on a strict diet with restrictions on the amount of protein he could consume. The early success of the injection has his liver properly processing ammonia, allowing him to expand his food options and eat on a less structured timeline.

“Now I can eat as much protein as I want,” said McQuillin. “I’m eating differently, sleeping differently, exercising differently. I’ve gained a bit of weight. I’ve never had to fight weight gain before.”

His newfound freedom has him planning a trip to the United Kingdom which was a frightening premise prior to therapy. “If I was to get sick somewhere, Glasgow or somewhere, where’s the nearest hospital? Do they know how to deal with a rare genetic disorder?”

In addition to McQuillin, only three other patients in the world have undergone a similar gene therapy treatment attempt.

With files from CTV’s Shaun Frenette