If you’ve ever met Ottawa businessman Robert Merkley, president of Merkley Supply, there’s a good chance he’s tried to recruit you to join his team for The Ottawa Hospital’s RIDE for Research charity cycling fundraiser.
He’s enthusiastic, engaging and, most of all, relentless.
Merkley’s team is cleverly named the Brick Peddlers (his business supplies about 85 percent of the stone and brick to builders in the region). It holds the distinction of consistently having the largest number of cyclists and having raised the most amount of money — some $2.2 million — since Merkley co-founded The RIDE and joined as a sponsor in 2010.
The cycling fundraiser has raised more than $13 million over its nine years.
Merkley’s contributions, along with those of his fellow riders, both past and present, were celebrated at a reception held Tuesday at The Ottawa Hospital’s Cancer Centre, located at the General Campus. His team grew as large as 200 members one year and has seen some cyclists branch out to start their own teams.
“We wouldn’t all be here today if it wasn’t for his passion and determination,” Ingrid Gingras, marketing director for The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, told the room.
The event featured Dr. John Bell, an award-winning, world-renowned senior scientist in cancer therapeutics at The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a pioneer of the oncolytic virus therapy. He thankfully kept it light on the scientific jargon as he spoke about the fascinating work that he and his team have been doing.
“I think this is an incredible time in cancer research and cancer therapy,” said Dr. Bell, who’s also a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa. “Things are changing almost on a daily basis. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I can’t believe the changes in the last five years. It’s phenomenal.”
Afterward, guests were offered a behind-the-scenes tour of the research lab.
Much of the funds raised by the Brick Peddlers has gone toward helping Dr. Bell with his clinical trials.
"We bet on the right horse,” joked Merkley, who was recognized in 2014 with an Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser award by the Ottawa chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals for his work in cancer fundraising. The following year, his wife, Susan Merkley, was diagnosed and began treatment for ovarian cancer.
Dr. Bell and his team have been working and developing targeted therapies to attack cancer. Their main focus has been the use of viruses. The oncolytic viruses specifically kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact. They can also trigger the patient’s immune system to attack the cancer and keep it from coming back.
“We’re getting our bodies to learn how to fight the cancer so we don’t have to use chemo, we don’t have to use radiation, we can actually use our own bodies to fight it,” said Dr. Bell. "I'm really excited about this, moving forward."
Attendees also heard about the success of CAR-T cell therapy used for youngsters with aggressive leukemia, and efforts to bring the treatment to Canada.
The clinical trials with patients are now being funded largely by a private Ottawa biotech firm, Turnstone Biologics, which has raised many millions from outside investors. Dr. Bell is a scientific founder and board member.
“All this came because you guys supported us early on, when things were just a pipe dream,” Dr. Bell told the room. “It’s made a huge, huge difference to us.
“I just want to thank you — all of you — for what you’ve done over the years. It’s really changing the way cancer is going to be treated. We hope for a lot better outcomes for a lot more people.”