Laura Hillier driving boost to stem cell treatments — almost a year after she died

Nearly a year after her death, the result of 18-year-old Laura Hillier's advocacy for stem cell treatments is coming to fruition. A unit is in development at Juravinski that will increase its ability to do these treatments by 50 per cent.

Juravinski will be able to do 50 per cent more treatments thanks to funding teen's advocacy catalyzed

Laura Hillier died of acute myeloid leukemia on Jan. 20, 2016, after working hard to bring public attention to long wait times for the treatment that she herself never got. (Facebook/Hope for Laura Hillier)

Nearly a year after her death, 18-year-old Laura Hillier's relentless advocacy for stem cell treatments is coming to fruition: a unit is in development at Juravinski that will increase its treatment output by 50 per cent.

For years, Hillier suffered from acute myeloid leukemia. When she came out of remission in May 2015, she started raising awareness about the fact that, despite life-saving treatment being available, she and others could die waiting for it.

Now the cancer hospital is developing a stem cell unit with a budget of $13 to $14 million. And Hillier was part of that.

"She played an absolutely important role in raising awareness," said Dr. Ralph Meyer, vice president of oncology and palliative care at Hamilton Health Sciences.

Getting results

After Hillier died in January 2016, her mom Frances took up her banner. She raised more than $30,000 in Laura's name and donated it to the construction of the new Juravinski unit. Tamara Pope, Hamilton Health Sciences spokesperson, said the unit should be ready by fall 2018.

"It was an extremely generous contribution," Pope said.

In total, the budget for the project is "in the range of $13 to 14 million," said Meyer. Queen's Park footed most of that bill, but Juraviniski is in the process of raising $3.5 million toward that sum. Part of that is Hillier's donation.

She said, 'Please don't let me die in vain, Mum. Don't let this happen to anyone else.'- Frances Hillier

But more important than their donation was the attention they brought to the issue.

"Laura and her family raised a lot of awareness across the province and the country," Meyer said. At the time, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins also tweeted his support following a wave of media attention to stem cell treatment access.

Since then, there has been tangible progress. The unit is part of the $30 million in funding the Ontario government has put into the issue.

Frances Hillier said she and her family feel the progress is meaningful, and that it goes well beyond lip service.

"Laura would be proud of the work," she said. "And I appreciate the acknowledgement of her efforts to help solve this problem."

A severe loss

Laura Hillier suffered from acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood for which "the treatment is so severe, the chemo is so intense," her mother said of the standard chemotherapy treatment. She battled the disease for years, andin 2015, found there was a long wait time for the stem cell treatment that could save her life.

"The wait time was neither benign, nor was it appropriate," Frances Hillier said. "We were shocked."

"When she spoke out, she didn't think this was going to help her get a transplant any faster."

As Frances Hillier told CBC Radio's As it Happens in May 2016, "Laura wanted it to be a mission to fix this for people. She said, 'Please don't let me die in vain, Mom. Don't let this happen to anyone else.'"

She was a remarkable young woman. We felt honoured to be her parents.- Frances Hillier

She said they couldn't believe it: they would have gone far and wide for treatment, but "across Canada, we were told there were wait lists, and we were shocked. We said, 'How could this ever come to be?'"

Meyer, who is also the regional vice president for Cancer Care Ontario and a McMaster University professor of oncology, said that "in other types of treatment, the goal is to bring the cancer under control." In other words, the aim is to improve a patient's quality of life, and increase their life expectancy.

A school photo of Laura Hillier. (Facebook/Hope for Laura Hillier)

On the other hand, "the goal of doing stem cell transplants is to cure the cancer," he said. To do that, the patient has to find a matching donor. Then they "give a treatment that eradicates the patient's own bone marrow and stem cells, and replace them with those from the donor," Meyer explained.

Hillier found a matching donor, but there were 33 people ahead of her in line for the treatment.

She died on Jan. 20, 2016.

"I'm really proud of her courage," her mother said. "She was a remarkable young woman. We felt honoured to be her parents."

dave.beatty@cbc.ca | @dbeatty