When someone suffers a stroke, there is a precious window of time for doctors to administer tPA, a clot-busting drug that can transform a stroke from being an event that triggers a lifelong handicap to one that patients can recover from. Some can even walk home the following day.
During a stroke, a blood clot disrupts the flow of blood to part of the brain. Deprived of oxygen and nutrients, brain cells start to die.
“Think of it like you would of an earthquake,” says Hakim. “In the middle, the buildings are crumbled. No one will ever live in them again. But just outside of that, the buildings, the walls are cracked. The buildings are eventually going to crumble unless you hurry up and go in there, and strengthen those walls back up into good function.”
Initially, it was believed that the damage caused by a stroke was immediate and beyond repair. Hakim showed that there was still a critical region, the penumbral region just outside the core of the stroke, where surviving cells were holding their breath, weakened but waiting for rescue.
“So we actually study patients, to whom I owe an incredible debt of gratitude, who had just suffered a stroke a few hours before, brought them into imaging and studied what was going on, and confirmed that in fact that region that is affected doesn’t immediately die. It’s not working, it’s resulting in deficits, but it’s alive,” says Hakim.
“All of a sudden, we had work to do.”
This new understanding led to the development of a clot-busting drug, one that could restore blood flow to the stroke region and help surviving cells recover. Hakim also led the creation of the Canadian Stroke Network, helping shift longstanding practices in stroke treatment to incorporate this new drug into acute stroke care.
“That is a beautiful Canadian invention,” says Hakim. “Bringing science to the public, switching stroke from a lifelong handicap to a temporary problem that you can walk away from has been a major achievement that I will always be very proud of.”