$1.4M donation from Magnotta foundation to fund Lyme disease research

The University of Guelph is opening a research lab dedicated to improved testing and treatment for Lyme disease, caused by tick-borne bacteria, thanks to a donation in honour of Magnotta Winery co-founder Gabe Magnotta.

Donation in honour of Gabe Magnotta, co-founder of Magnotta Winery

Thanks to a grant of $1.4 million, the University of Guelph is setting up a Lyme disease research lab. The grant comes from the G. Magnotta Foundation for Vector-Borne Diseases, set up to honour Rossana Magnotta's late husband, Gabe. The Magnottas co-founded Magnotta Winery. (Magnotta Winery)

Rossana Magnotta and her late husband Gabe are renowned across Ontario for the wines produced by Magnotta Winery, but thanks to a large donation to the University of Guelph they'll also now be known for their contribution to the fight against Lyme disease.

Gabe Magnotta died from Lyme disease complications in 2009. In his honour, three years later in 2012 Rossana set up the G. Magnotta Foundation for Vector-Borne Diseases. Thanks to a $1.4 million grant from that foundation, the University of Guelph is opening a research lab dedicated to improved testing and treatment for Lyme disease, a tick-borne bacterial disease increasingly affecting Canadians. 

"When you dream about something like this for a while, you have your challenges and your obstacles," Magnotta told CBC's Matt Llewellyn. 

"You have your highs and lows and then when it happens, it's just like, its kind of a pleasant kind of shock, so I'm happy today, I'm smiling," she said.

Struggle for diagnosis

"He was an avid outdoorsman, loves nature, spent a lot of time with his English setters and took a lot of walks and did a lot of training," said Magnotta of her husband. At some point in his outdoor adventures, Gabe was bitten by a tick.

"At the time he started to not think much of it, because you know he's a big strong guy and didn't think it was anything serious," she said.

Then Gabe started to experience neurological problems that affected his balance, gave him double vision, pain and cognitive problems. He struggled to write and speak and even to swallow properly.

"He deteriorated within the first four-and-a-half years with no treatment of anything, because no one could figure out what he had, even though I kept on saying, I think my husband has been bit [by] something, I think he might have Lyme disease," she said.

"But the doctors were basically thinking probably that I was just an over-reactive wife and paranoid, and they didn't have reason to believe that I had any logic to my thinking here. So they ignored me."

Magnotta said she struggled with multiple doctors, from her family doctor to specialists to multiple neurologists.

Finally, Gabe was tested for Lyme disease but the result was negative. So the Magnottas went to the U.S. and Germany, where Gabe tested positive. But when they returned to Canada, Rosanna said that Canadian physicans wouldn't recognize the results and treat Gabe for Lyme.

So they again looked outside of the country for treatment options, which she says cost "a fortune."

"It was very difficult and very expensive and I just can't imagine that any other Canadian would have to  face those kinds of costs in our own country," she said. 

As the number of Canadians with Lyme disease grows, they are increasingly heading out-of-country for Lyme tests and treatments, according to those suffering from the disease.

Causes of Lyme disease

Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia, which is transmitted through the bites of ticks carrying it.

Infected individuals initially experience flu-like symptoms. But left untreated, the disease can affect the skin, internal organs, musculoskeletal system, eyesight and hearing.

Lyme is often misdiagnosed, as its symptoms can mimic other neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

"Lyme disease is increasingly recognized as a substantial threat across the country, and there is a profound need for high-quality science that can improve the lives of afflicted Canadians," said Melanie Wills, a research associate in the school's molecular and cellular biology department, who will head the new lab.

Guelph chosen

Magnotta said the University of Guelph's reputation was key. 

"They're experts in zoonotic diseases, they're world class, they're very passionate researchers. They have these advanced technologies in DNA and molecular analysis that will actually enable a deeper understanding of this bacteria," she said.

with files from Canadian Press and Matt Llewellyn