The Stroke Doc

A Toronto researcher spends a decade testing a new drug to find out if it has the potential to prevent damage from stroke and save lives.

A sudden stroke is like a brush fire to the brain, burning over a million neurons per minute. Within an hour of experiencing a stroke, your brain can lose as many neurons as it does in more than three and a half years of normal aging. And those cells are dead forever. For the stroke victim, every passing second without intervention means more debilitating neurological damage, permanent disability, or even death. Medical researchers have long known that a stroke drug, or a neuroprotectant, administered in a timely fashion, could lessen or prevent the damage done by stroke, save countless lives and be worth an utter fortune. It might even win a Nobel Prize. Over the years, many pharmaceutical companies have spent untold billions of dollars trying to create just such a drug. But it has always come down to testing those drugs — something that has proved nearly impossible. Until now.

Dr. Mike Tymianski thinks he’s not only created a stroke drug that works, he thinks he has finally figured out a way to test it, safely and effectively, on humans. He just has to prove it. Tymianski is a renowned neurosurgeon and senior scientist at the University of Toronto, in addition to being a Canada Research Chair in Translational Stroke Research. But the final stage of human trials turned into an ongoing test not only of his brave patients (and his own patience), but of his very commitment to solving this global dilemma.

The Stroke Doc is the story of this one stubborn doctor and his little drug company that could. More than a decade ago, Tymianski and his researchers discovered a drug they called NA-1, the holy grail of stroke drugs, a small protein that seemed to be able to help the brain hold its breath during a stroke, preventing the worst of the damage. In other words, it bought patients time. Now he had to prove NA-1 worked on actual stroke victims.

This documentary followed the last phase of the human drug testing, a near decade long odyssey, of trial and error, of starts and stops, of pivots and perfections, of losses and gains. But in the end, Dr Tymianksi and his team think they’ve achieved what eluded other stroke researchers in the past—they found what they believe is a safe and effective way to test NA-1 on the very people that will need it the most—on stroke patients themselves.

The Stroke Doc is a high-stakes medical drama that takes place in the back of screaming ambulances, in hospital corridors and emergency wards around the world, taking us from Muskoka to Manila, where success is measured by nearly imperceptible changes on an MRI, scrutinized in the middle of the night. And where failure could very well mean the loss of decades of research and tens of millions of dollars. Not to mention setting back the science of stroke drug research…yet again.

Is Dr. Tymianski’s drug just another in a long line of failed stroke drugs? Or is he actually on the cusp of the biggest Canadian medical innovation since the discovery of insulin?

The Stroke Doc was produced by Antica Productions with support from the TELUS Fund.

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