July 24, 2024

Life Harbor

Information regarding Healthcare

Meet Dr. Darcy Wagner, an MUHC bioengineer with big dreams for respiratory care

4 min read

Lung disease represents a major global health crisis, ranking as a leading cause of disability and death worldwide.  In Canada, more than 3 million Canadians suffer from serious lung diseases—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pulmonary fibrosis—with very little recourse. But at the Meakins-Christie Laboratories of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), expert researchers like Dr. Darcy Wagner are doing everything they can to improve lung health in Montreal and around the world.

As part of the Montreal Chest Institute (MCI), the Meakins-Christie Laboratories are at the forefront of providing breathtaking research and breath-giving care.  Every year, the MCI treats over 30,000 patients for respiratory diseases, providing personalized care and helping patients living with lung disease breathe easier and live longer.  Supported by the MUHC Foundation, the MUHC recruited Dr. Darcy Wagner, a renowned all-star bioengineer with big dreams for respiratory care; her arrival is a game changer for what is possible for the MCI and for Montreal.

Dr. Wagner is a rare kind of problem solver. She is renowned for her out-of-the-box ideas and for being uncompromising in her pursuit of groundbreaking  treatments for severe lung disease like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). For COPD, there is often only one truly effective option for treatment – a lung transplant. Unfortunately, hospitals face a shortage of lungs and donors.  On top of this, a lung transplant is a very invasive surgery that poses significant risk for life-threatening complications.

“This (research) could lead to lifesaving treatments by making it easier for us to repair damaged lungs in a manner that is tailored to each patient. The therapeutic possibilities of such technology are endless, and are the future of personalized medicine.” – Darcy Wagner

Like something out of science fiction, Dr. Wagner wants to build new lungs outside of the body that can then be transplanted into patients.  To do this, she is working with sophisticated 3D bioprinters to reconstruct parts of a lung, such as an airway, or an entire lung, from scratch.

For Dr. Wagner, her mission to find an alternative to a transplant is personal. At only 16, she experienced the devastating loss of her best friend—he passed away while waiting for a kidney transplant. Dr. Wagner wants to prevent families and loved ones from undergoing a similar loss for what she believes can be preventable.

“My goal is to greatly reduce the need for lung transplants. Not only are they incredibly invasive, but the 6-year survival rate is only 50-60% percent and it’s remained largely unchanged for over a decade,” states Dr. Wagner.

With degrees in engineering and biology, Dr. Wagner is uniquely equipped to explore the possibilities of lung regeneration treatment.  At the heart of her research are stem cells that can help regenerate tissue in the lungs—but these do not last long outside of the body.  This is a major barrier towards using them to heal organs, but Dr. Wagner has a solution.

By using revolutionary new techniques in bioprinting to help stem cells last longer, Dr. Wagner is figuring out how to create healthy new lung tissue that can be transplanted into patients.  This involves using a special scaffold material to cover and support the stem cells, which ensures that they will survive.  If this can be applied to patients, physicians would collect their stem cells or those from a donor and use them to kickstart the healing process or transplant healthy new tissue to replace the damaged lungs.

“When you’re engineering things, you can completely reimagine the type of therapy that you might give these patients, and that’s very exciting,” shares Dr. Wagner.

Physicians could also test new therapies by building realistic lung models in the lab using the cells from individual patients—this is truly transformational precision medicine.

“This could lead to lifesaving treatments by making it easier for us to repair damaged lungs in a manner that is tailored to each patient. The therapeutic possibilities of such technology are endless, and are the future of personalized medicine,” explains Dr. Wagner.

Moreover, Dr. Wagner is determined to make lung research more equitable. Historically, women and gender-diverse individuals from racialized groups have been left out of respiratory research. An important aim of her research is to bridge this gap and ensure that every Quebecer suffering from lung disease has access to world-class, personalized medicine.

Dr. Wagner also shares that hope is her greatest motivator, because it really does make all the difference to a patient and their loved ones when you can provide them with less-invasive treatment options, and that’s what her and her team are urgently working on. One thing is certain: The MUHC, supported by the MUHC Foundation, has the resources, the supporters, and the vision to make her dreams for lung (re)generation a reality.

“The MUHC Foundation is incredibly proud to support Dr. Wagner as she transforms the landscape of respiratory care. Her innovative work and vision for the future of lung care is what we’re passionate about funding, and it’s precisely what distinguishes the MUHC as a leading health care institution. Incredible healing happens here because of disruptive thinkers like Dr. Wagner,” shares Marie-Hélène Laramée, President and CEO of the MUHC Foundation.

“Incredible healing happens here (at the MUHC) because of disruptive thinkers like Dr. Wagner.” – Marie-Hélène Laramée, President and CEO of the MUHC Foundation

You can help support Dr. Wagner’s dreams for better lung care. The MUHC Foundation is proud to support respiratory research and care at the MUHC through its $10 million Dream Big. Breathe Easier fundraising campaign. To learn more and to donate, visit

The MUHC Foundation is accredited by Imagine Canada for excellence in non-profit accountability, transparency and governance. 


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