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$25 million to tackle treatment-resistant cancers from James Riddell and family
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$25 million to tackle treatment-resistant cancers from James Riddell and family

A Calgary family’s $25-million donation to defeat treatment-resistant cancers touches an emotional chord with Kelly Mclachlan.

As associate manager of clinical trials at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, the 49-year-old already knew well the importance of funding research into battling the most merciless forms of the disease.

But when she was stricken two years ago by a particularly virulent form of lymphoma that attacked her bowels, the notion of a family devoting a vast treasure to bolstering care and research into immunological medicine became personal.

“Last January, I was told I was going to die, and Dr. Shafey and her team were beyond fabulous. How do you ever thank them? It’s such a miracle gift.”

She was referring to Dr. Mona Shafey, director of the blood and marrow transplant program at the Foothills Medical Centre, who oversaw Mclachlan’s treatment earlier this year that saw her T-cells harvested, processed and then reinjected into her body.

It’s a process known as chimeric antigen receptor, or CAR T-cell therapy.

“I had literally nothing else left — a stem cell transplant wouldn’t work for me,” said Mclachlan.

Months later, the woman is cancer-free and looking forward to moving her own work into the new Arthur J.E. Child Comprehensive Cancer Centre next year, which will house the new Riddell Centre for Cancer Immunotherapy.

It’s named after the Riddell family whose $25-million gift is creating a hub for care and research that’s expected to be a world leader in the field of combating hard-to-treat cancers.

“It’s going to be transformative in what we’ll be able to do in Calgary and beyond,” said Dr. Doug Mahoney, science director for Alberta Cellular Therapy and Immune Oncology Initiative.

“It’s going to allow us to build up an area of strength we’ve built over the past five years.”

Scientists manipulate patients’ immune systems to “enable them to see patients’ cancer more effectively — we can actually impart a new set of instructions to the T-cells to attack and kill (cancer cells),” said Mahoney.

But to do so more effectively means having an interdisciplinary team to conduct discovery science, improved manufacturing of immunotherapies and to do clinical research that will focus on CAR-T therapy, he said.

“We need to build, test and learn as quickly as we can. . . . Are they safe enough and are there problems we need to fix?” said Mahoney.

“This is what the Riddell donation will enable us to do.”

Calgary researchers hope to improve manufacture of CAR T-cells

Hundreds of thousands of patients worldwide have already benefited from such immunotherapy, said Mahoney, but researchers in Calgary will seek to improve on it.

One of those strategies is to enhance the manufacture of CAR T-cells, he said.

“This will enable us to manufacture to much higher standards than what we have now, to a clinical grade and for different types of immuno-manufacturing,” said Mahoney.

The physician who treated Mclachlan noted the woman’s cells were sent to the U.S. to be modified for use.

“If we can do it here locally, things can be done more quickly, whereas if you send it to a company in the U.S. where those cells can be stuck in customs — it’s actually happened,” said Shafey.

With more funding, more patients should be treated in Calgary rather than being sent elsewhere, which was more of a reality a few short years ago, she said.

“I remember this one woman who I told she’d likely die from her tumour,” said Shafey.

“She went to the U.S. (for CAR T-cell therapy) and is still alive today.”

The therapy that began non-trial use in Calgary in early 2021 is now treating about 30 patients a year in the city, said Shafey, who’s passionate about the rewards that extend beyond patient recovery.

“That’s what we live for, it’s the most amazing when you give them a treatment and it works,” she said.

That $25-million infusion allows Calgary physicians to do more on the CAR T-cell treatments, which have shown to result in remission or extension of life beyond a year in up to 50 per cent of cases, she said.

Family patriarch Clay Riddell, 81, was a billionaire and philanthropist who thrived in the oil and gas sector

Plainspoken and unpretentious, Clay Riddell was a self-made oil and gas magnate, restaurant owner and philanthropist who ascribed his success in the turbulent world of global energy to trying lots of “stuff” and striking it lucky.

“Don’t be a spectator,” Mr. Riddell counselled graduating students at Carleton University in November, 2014, during a ceremony in which he was given an honorary doctorate. “Be a part of life and make sure near the end of it that the list of things you wish you had done is shorter than the list of things you did.

“I’ve had more than my share of luck,” he continued with his omnipresent half-smile. “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

Mr. Riddell, the founder and former chief executive of Paramount Resources Ltd. and a co-owner of the Calgary Flames hockey team. A son of the Prairies, he amassed a fortune that Forbes magazine pegged at $1.2 billion, but you would never have suspected it if you met him face-to-face.

“He always gave, he never took and he preferred to listen,” said Ken King, the president and CEO of the Calgary Flames, who approached Mr. Riddell in 2003 to become a part owner of the team. “This is how I’ll remember him: humble to the max, with not an affectation in the world.”

Through the vicissitudes of the industry, including the National Energy Program in the 1980s and the collapse of the price of oil in 2014, through all the criticisms, accolades and awards, a bespectacled Mr. Riddell simply got down to work and did what was needed, Mr. King continued. Oil and gas exploration has always been a risky venture, he noted. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

“Clay faced some serious business challenges but, in the end, he had more successes in his ledger than he had failures,” Mr. King said. “You know, a lot of people come to the end of their careers and sort of reverse-engineer, or rewrite, what they did to get there; how they brilliantly planned and strategized. But not him. His is a great story of honesty, integrity and hard work.”

Clayton Howard Riddell was born on July 14, 1937, on a farm near Treherne, Man., a tiny community located halfway between Winnipeg and Brandon. He was the surprise youngest child of Cecil Howard Riddell and the former Bertha Maude Taylor, and a brother to Evelyn and Lillian.

The family lost their farm in the Great Depression and moved to Winnipeg, where young Clay learned firsthand how a bit of ingenuity combined with hard work and vision could make things work out. Common-sensical and book smart, he was a self-starter, earning a bachelor of science in geology at the University of Manitoba while working summers in the north of the province as a camp attendant and cook. He loved the land, with its stark formations, lakes and waterfalls, and, after graduating in 1959, began to work as an exploration geologist for the Standard Oil Company of California, later called Chevron. For a decade, he happily explored and mapped the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, gaining hands-on experience that would help when he started his own company, C.H. Riddell Geological Consultants Ltd.

Entrepreneurial down to his bones, in 1971, Mr. Riddell incorporated Paramount Oil & Gas Ltd.; seven years later, in December, 1978, its accumulated assets were placed in a public company called Paramount Resources Ltd. At the same time, he raised $5-million on the Alberta Stock Exchange, a sum that in today’s dollars would hover near $20-million.

According to the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame, Mr. Riddell’s early successes included finding shallow gas wells in northeastern Alberta, and he continually fine-tuned the application of air drilling technology in low-pressure gas reservoirs, which resulted in several large discoveries.

From Paramount, Mr. Riddell created the Paramount Energy Trust, which would become Perpetual Energy Inc., and the Trilogy Energy Trust. In 2015, he ceded control of the company to his son, Jim Riddell, staying on only as its chair. One of his daughters, Sue Riddell Rose, now serves as CEO of Perpetual Energy.

In 1992, Mr. Riddell was instrumental in the founding of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, in effect a merger of the Canadian Petroleum Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of Canada.

His philanthropic endeavors include a $10-million endowment for the creation of the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth and Resources at his alma mater, the University of Manitoba; the Riddell Library and Learning Centre at Mount Royal University in Calgary; and $15-million for the Clayton H. Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Carleton University in Ottawa. (This last donation caused controversy in 2012, with faculty and the Canadian Association of University Teachers calling the donor agreement a major infringement on academic freedom because it seemed to imply Mr. Riddell had the final say on both the curriculum and hiring of staff. Upon review, the agreement was rewritten to reflect that he was a “strategic adviser,” a role he had actually played from the start, according to Roseann O’Reilly Runte, who was Carleton’s president at the time.)

Along the way, he met and married Vi Thorarinson, who had moved from Manitoba to Calgary, where she worked as a nurse at Alberta Children’s Hospital for 30 years. They would have three daughters and a son, instilling in all of them a work ethic and sense of community. The marriage would last 49 years, ending only when his wife died of leukemia in 2012.

Typical of Mr. Riddell’s outlook, he mourned her, but didn’t let the loss drag him down. Life went on, he knew, each day as important as the one that came before. There were grandchildren’s sporting events to attend, NHL hockey games to cheer at and, eventually, a new love, Maria-Liisa Barnby.

For 40 years, he played a weekly curling match and he loved golf with his buddies, even – or especially – when the stakes for the winner were no higher than a toonie. He had season tickets to the Flames, and to the team’s predecessor, the Calgary Cowboys of the short-lived World Hockey Association. Mr. King recalled that when he asked Mr. Riddell to come on board as an owner, his answer was that he had to go home and confer with his wife.

The next day, he said yes – and Mr. King said he fit in with the other owners as if he had always been there, travelling with them en masse as the team went all the way that season to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost narrowly to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In light of the Flames’ success that year, Mr. King recalls assuring Mr. Riddell that it wasn’t always that simple.

“He replied, ‘Ken, it sure seems simple to me.’ But really, he knew it wasn’t. It was, as he always said, the result of lots of hard work – because that’s how you make your luck.”

Mr. Riddell family counts his four children, Lynne, Sue, Jim and Brenda, and eight grandchildren.

Photo: James Riddell

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