“It’s a wonderful feeling as a physician-researcher to know I’ve been able to help so many people,” said Dr. Robert Hansebout, MD’60. It’s a modest statement from a man who has touched the lives of an estimated 12.5-million people, through his research, surgical practice and leadership roles.
Under the tutelage of beloved faculty members such as Drs. Jack Walters, Andrew Durnford, John Fisher and Angus McLachlin, Dr. Hansebout embarked on his medical education at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry in the late 1950s. After graduation, he trained with Drs. Wilder Penfield and Gilles Bertrand in neurosurgery, perfecting his skills and developing new interests in epilepsy, brain surgery and spinal cord injury.
His career took him to three different universities and he co-discovered and patented Fampridine (Fampyra), a drug used for people with spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis, performed more than 4,500 surgeries, served as Chair of Surgery at McMaster University, and was responsible for the founding of the Surgical Outcomes Research Centre at McMaster University.
Dr. Hansebout’s major interest was always with helping victims of spinal cord injury. And he developed a means to deeply cool the acutely-injured spinal cord to promote the preservation of feeling and movement.
Of all his accomplishments, Dr. Hansebout remains most proud of the research leading to the discovery of the effectiveness of 4-aminopyridine and the development of Fampyra.
“It took more than 30 years of research and about $30 million in funding to get FDA approval, and in the end knowing that it’s being sold around the world and helping so many people makes me feel good,” said Dr. Hansebout.
Dr. Hansebout’s research with 4-aminopyridine began in 1990. Extracted from coal tar, the substance was originally used by eastern European farmers as a bird repellent to protect their crops. He and his team believed that they could harness some of the potential of this drug to improve conduction in damaged portions of the nervous system for people with chronic spinal cord injuries. It was later used in pill form.
After perfecting it to medical grade and mixing it with a liquid carrier, they began the testing stage, working with volunteer patients with complete and incomplete spinal cord injuries.
The substance was found to reduce spasticity in patients and give them about 15 to 20 per cent improved motor function in paralyzed extremities in those with incomplete injuries where some function remained after the injury. Continued research showed that the same substance provided patients with multiple sclerosis substantial and statistically significant improvement in walking.
For his pioneering work in spinal cord research, Dr. Hansebout was honoured with the Champion for a Cure Award by the Canadian Spinal Research Organization. “I was dubbed the Father of Fampridine,” Dr. Hansebout said with a chuckle.
Retirement has slowed him down, but Dr. Hansebout continues to impact the lives of others through voluntarism. In collaboration with the Public Health Nurses of Hamilton, he helped to create a Think First Hamilton contingent (now incorporated into Parachute Canada). Their mission was to educate public school students about head injuries and how to prevent them.
As a member of Think First Hamilton, Dr. Hansebout became the inaugural Chair of the Canadian Tire Corporation Jumpstart Program, which began in Hamilton. The program provides funding to families who cannot afford to become involved in organized sporting activities.
With more than one-million children supported through Jumpstart, Dr. Hansebout continues to make a difference in the lives of people in Canada. “It’s been a tremendous success,” he said, recalling his own recent visit to a Canadian Tire store when he was asked by the cashier to make a donation. “She was surprised when I told her that I helped start the program,” he added proudly.
Born in Aylmer, Ontario, Dr. Hansebout’s parents, neither of which had a formal education beyond grade eight, encouraged him to work hard and to excel. It seems as though this award-winning, internationally renowned neurosurgeon and researcher has done just that. And along the way he has enriched the lives of countless others.