Annual Report 2007-2008

[ Table of Contents ]

Portraits of Partnerships


Partnerships with Universities

CIHR and Canada's universities work together to support and promote the work of Canada's health researchers. It's a synergistic partnership - CIHR would have no researchers to fund if universities did not provide them with the facilities and students to help them in their work. At the same time, universities depend on the operating funds their researchers receive from CIHR and from other funding sources to use these facilities, to support their teaching activities with ongoing research and to enhance students' learning experiences.

The Research Funding Ripple Effect

Thirty years ago, Bryan Kolb was a rising star at McGill, a large university in a big city, with abundant resources and funding opportunities. But he didn't like big-city living and, a Calgarian born and bred, he wanted to move back West. So he chose to move to a centre with a small university that aspired to big things - the University of Lethbridge, in Southern Alberta.

Dr. Kolb is renowned as one of the founding fathers of behavioural neuroscience. The author of five books, including two textbooks, with his frequent collaborator and colleague at Lethbridge, Dr. Ian Whishaw, Dr. Kolb's research has focused on how structural changes in the cerebral cortex - because of factors such as hormones, drug use, or stroke - affect behaviour. And, all of this research has been done in Lethbridge.

"If your research is good, you can do it anywhere," he says. "I haven't been penalized at all."

In fact, far from being penalized, Dr. Kolb has helped to create a centre of excellence in behavioural neuroscience at Lethbridge. There is now a building, with 160 people working in it, dedicated to behavioural neuroscience. And every year, experts from around the world come to Lethbridge for meetings and presentations.

Life sciences, says Dr. Kolb, have gone molecular in the past two decades. And molecular science requires large groups of people and a lot of very expensive equipment. But this is not the only approach, Dr. Kolb adds.

"I don't believe all the questions we need to ask are molecular," he says. "A lot of innovations come from smaller labs, and enormous numbers of excellent people get their start in the smaller universities."

Smaller universities such as Lethbridge are able to support more of those excellent people now. CIHR's expanded mandate has resulted in more researchers from smaller universities, those without medical schools, being eligible for funding. This has resulted in new partnerships with universities across the country, from the University of Northern British Columbia to the University of Prince Edward Island. The University of Lethbridge, for example, received just over $500,000 in the last four years of the Medical Research Council, CIHR's predecessor. Since CIHR's creation, it has received nearly $3.5 million. But, for Dennis Fitzpatrick, Vice-President (Research) at the University of Lethbridge, it's more than simply increased CIHR funding.

"It's a complex story," he says. "CIHR is at the table each and every year, providing core operating grants. And this is incredibly important in small institutions. If you don't have CIHR funding, you're not going to get Alberta Cancer Board funding or Heart and Stroke Foundation funding, or any of the other sources of health research funding in Canada."

Serving Official Language Minority Communities

Geneviève Rail knows that teens think differently about health than adults. The University of Ottawa researcher has found that these youth tend to think of healthy as synonymous with being thin and having "good" bodies - even if that means unhealthy habits like excessive dieting or taking steroids.

But what about youth living in a minority situation, such as francophones living in anglophone environments, or vice-versa? Do they view health the same way? So far, there is some evidence that being in a minority situation can affect how you experience health or illness, how you access health services and how you experience health care. But not many researchers are equipped for the challenges of health research in these official language minority communities.

"There's not a whole lot of health research tradition in these communities," says Dr. Rail. So she was asked to organize a CIHR Summer Institute that will focus on the issue of health within official language minority communities, to be held in partnership with the University of Ottawa, in June 2008.

All 13 of CIHR's Institutes are participating in the partnership with the University of Ottawa for the Summer Institute. Participants will have a unique learning opportunity to interact with expert researchers and community leaders and to explore the challenges of planning and carrying out research that is rooted in the cultural context of official language minority communities.

Dr. Rail is looking forward to the Summer Institute. As a researcher, she has been involved in projects focusing on health within Franco-Ontarian communities. While Vice-Dean of Research in the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Health Sciences, she became used to supporting young researchers.

"That's what I like to do," she says. "I help young researchers to write research grants, research proposals."

The Summer Institute will favour such training and, ultimately, the creation and transfer of new health knowledge for the well-being of official language minority communities.

Strengthening the Ties of Aboriginal Health Research

Throughout the world of Aboriginal health research, in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, researchers are focusing on traditional medicine; Canada is beginning to move in this direction. Work in this area has been slowed by a lack of people qualified to peer review the research into this and other areas of traditional medicine, says Dawn Martin-Hill, who conducts such research herself.

Finding these people is one of the ways that the Aboriginal Health Research Networks Secretariat (AHRNetS), a central coordinating body for the nine Network Environments for Aboriginal Health Research (NEAHRs) that are located in universities across the country, can contribute to the strength of Aboriginal health research in Canada. NEAHRs, an initiative of CIHR's Institute of Aboriginal Peoples' Health, are a partnership between CIHR, university-based researchers and Aboriginal communities and organizations to conduct research on issues important to these communities and to train graduate students who will go on to become Aboriginal health researchers.

Dr. Martin-Hill, a Mohawk and the Academic Director of the Indigenous Studies Program at Hamilton's McMaster University, is one of the principal investigators who together are leading the Indigenous Health Research Development Program (IHRDP), one of the nine NEAHRs. IHRDP is a collaboration of five geographically diverse Ontario-based universities including McMaster University, the University of Toronto, Trent University, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and Lakehead University. This NEAHR is unique in that its main office is located on the Six Nations Reserve, near Brantford, Ontario. This location has helped to build important ties with the Aboriginal community, an essential element in the NEAHR vision.

While each of the NEAHRs has its own priorities and research areas, they are also working together to develop what Dr. Martin-Hill calls "enclaves of interest". Their goal is to create long-term relationships so that, if funding for the NEAHRs ends, the research and research relationships will continue.

"The saddest thing that could happen is that we do all this work and we don't come out with strong partnerships between community organizations, universities and students."

Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill

Facts and Figures

  1. Excludes institutions paid through Direct Payments.
  2. Estimate based on a keyword search.
Number of institutions1 receiving funds from CIHR, 2000-01: 69
Number of institutions1 receiving funds from CIHR, 2007-08: 89
CIHR investment2 in Aboriginal health research, 2000-01: $2 million
CIHR investment2 in Aboriginal health research, 2007-08: $29.9 million

Partnerships with the Voluntary Sector

As organizations working directly with their communities, voluntary health organizations can shape research so that it meets the needs of those who use it and help to ensure that the results of research are applied to those who can benefit most. They bring the voices of their communities to CIHR and take CIHR's voice out to their communities.

Looking at Back Pain from the Inside Out: Supporting Small Health Organizations

So what's a chiropractor, an expert in "cracking" spines, doing in a lab at Toronto's University Health Network (UHN) looking at proteins and cells?

If it's Mark Erwin, one of the few chiropractors in North America conducting biomedical research, then he's leading a whole new approach to degenerative disc disease.

Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of lower back pain - especially as people age. There's no effective treatment for it. Dr. Erwin's work focuses on cells - called notochord cells - that help build our discs. Dogs and people both have them, but lose them with age - except for some mixed-breed dogs who keep them and who don't develop degenerative disc disease. Dr. Erwin is studying what is unique about the cells that certain dogs keep and how we can mimic the presence of these cells in humans, thus developing a novel treatment for or perhaps even preventing degenerative disc disease.

"I'm trying to learn how to do what Mother Nature does in the first place," he says.

To help him in his work, he has assembled a research team with expertise in rheumatology, orthopedics, neurosurgery, biomedical engineering, and cell and molecular biology. Bringing this multidisciplinary approach to his work provides broad input and valuable perspectives.

Dr. Erwin is quick to say that without the support he received through CIHR's Small Health Organizations Partnership Program (SHOPP), he'd never have been able to move from the chiropractor's office to the lab. That support allowed him to go back to school and get his PhD and supported him through his training. Now he's hoping to see that support continue as a New Investigator, the first stage in leading his own lab.

SHOPP fosters partnership opportunities with small health charities and not-for-profit organizations with modest health research funding capacity, like the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation (CCRF), the source of Dr. Erwin's support. These partnerships provide support, half from CIHR and half from member organizations, for students at the master's and doctoral levels, as well as for post-doctoral fellows and New Investigators.

Dr. Erwin, who made a significant diversion from clinical practice to earn his PhD, went to the lab to find a solution for his patients. He continues to practice (although at a reduced capacity) and says that his ultimate goal is to see the results of his research benefit patients. He is currently making the transition into full-time research but would like to maintain a clinical presence, ideally as a clinician-scientist within a broader multidisciplinary environment such as a hospital-based spine clinic, where he could continue with his basic science research.

"My work really is not bench to bedside," he says, referring to the standard research trajectory. "My research starts with patients and is really better described as 'bedside, to bench and back to bedside'."

"SHOPP has been tremendously successful in providing opportunities to small, historically under-represented professions. It has fostered a true research culture."

Dr. Allan Gotlib, Director of Research Programs, CCRF

Something About Football...

It's tough to be a professional football player. Every week, all season long, you subject your body to punishment most of us can only imagine. But now it appears as though the punishment may last for a lifetime - and a lifetime that's considerably shortened at that.

The culprit is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS - more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. This neurodegenerative disease is progressive. Sufferers experience gradual atrophying of their muscles, over time losing the ability to walk, talk or breathe on their own. Paralysis and then death follow, usually within two-to-five years of diagnosis. And while Lou Gehrig played baseball, the disease seems to be more common among professional football players.

"There appears to be an increased incidence of the disease in CFL football players," says Angela Genge, Director of Montreal's ALS clinic and physician to ex-Montreal Alouette Tony Proudfoot, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2007. Eight former CFL players out of 15,000 have been diagnosed with the disease, compared to two in every 100,000 in the general population.

Dr. Genge is conducting a study that will look at potential risk factors among professional football players - including the level of physical activity, the number of concussions they experience and the type of field they play on - and compare them with athletes from other sports. She will also look at all ALS patients in Quebec to look for commonalities in their physical activity and involvement in sports.

"If we can do this in enough detail," she says, "either we will see a pattern or someone looking from a distance will recognize a pattern."

The ALS Society of Canada, Muscular Dystrophy Canada and CIHR have invested approximately $9.3 million in research through the Neuromuscular Research Partnership (NRP) Program between 2000-01 and 2007-08. CIHR contributed an additional $10.8 million between 2000-01 and 2007-08 to support related research, through its general funding programs. The Neuromuscular Research Partnership was one of CIHR's earliest partnership agreements.

CIHR and the ALS Society support researchers such as Janice Robertson and Avi Chakrabartty of the University of Toronto who, in 2007, developed the first antibody that detects the only known cause of ALS. Their discovery could lead to new techniques for diagnosing this cause of ALS sooner, as well as holding diagnostic value for other types of ALS. The antibody could also help in efforts to develop new treatments for the disease.

Partnering to Prevent Injuries

Sixty years ago, drowning was a leading cause of injury death in Canada. In response, the Canadian Red Cross launched its first swimming and water safety program.

However, after many years of teaching Canadians to swim, people were still drowning. The Red Cross needed research to better target and tailor drowning prevention programs. In 1991, it entered into a partnership to conduct that research and now, evidence-based training and drowning prevention programs have made a significant difference in reducing the number of drowning deaths.

Today, the Red Cross is focusing more broadly on injury prevention. And, knowing the importance of research to its success, the Red Cross has entered into its first-ever partnership with CIHR, on injury prevention.

Injuries, both intentional and unintentional, cost Canadians more than $14 billion each year. CIHR has brought together partners from all levels of government as well as not-for-profit organizations to support a strategic initiative on the prevention and treatment of intentional and unintentional injuries. The initiative will support multidisciplinary teams of established researchers and trainees. Knowledge translation - putting research findings to work - will play an important role in every grant awarded.

"Partnering with CIHR gives us an opportunity to leverage the little funding we have for research," says Yvan Chalifour, Director of Injury Prevention at the Red Cross. "Even more, partnering with CIHR allows us to benefit from its research structures - its peer review system and its ties to researchers and to universities - as well as allowing us to share our drowning research expertise."

Partnerships such as this one also help not-for-profit organizations grappling with where best to use their scarce funds.

"Putting money into research to better help people in the future means taking away money that could be used to help people today," says Mr. Chalifour. "It's a real dilemma for us and for all not-for-profit organizations. Partnerships help resolve the dilemma."

Injuries span a multitude of areas. "The injury prevention partnership brings the Red Cross together with other organizations across Canada who are also focused on injury prevention," notes Mr. Chalifour. "To sit with other groups who have other interests, you get the big picture," he adds.

"We need more science. We need to measure what we do, find out what's effective, so that we can improve how we reach people."

Mr. Yvan Chalifour

Facts and Figures

Approximate number of CIHR partners from the voluntary sector, 2000-01: 30
Approximate number of CIHR partners from the voluntary sector, 2007-08: 130
Number of partners that supported SHOPP grants, 2007-08: 18
Number of participants in the CIHR-Partner Injury Workshop, June 2007: 64

Partnerships with Funding Agencies

Researchers do not work in isolation. In fact, some of the best scientific advancements are born of innovative collaborations that encourage researchers to think outside of their fields. Why should research funders be any different? CIHR has been forging partnerships with other funding agencies to support cutting-edge research collaborations, break down barriers to funding and make Canadian research competitive on the international stage.

Synchronizing Research Resources

Canadian researchers are shining a light, a very bright light, on brain diseases. And Canada's funding agencies are working together to make this happen.

Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's have long been associated with abnormal accumulations of toxic metals in the brain. But which metals are involved, where they accumulate and what role they play in disease remain unanswered questions. Helen Nichol, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, is using some of the most powerful imaging technology in the world to measure and map the location of these metals in human and rodent brains.

Dr. Nichol is capturing this information with a synchrotron, a machine that uses beams of intense light to analyze the structure and composition of a tissue sample. The synchrotron allows researchers to see what something looks like at the atomic level. This technology is immensely useful in helping health researchers understand the physical changes that occur in the body during disease and identify possible targets for treatment.

A synchrotron is like a microscope the size of a football field. It is massive consisting of a central particle accelerator, with spoke-like extensions known as beam lines. Each beam line, which can be kilometres in length, terminates in an end-station, a laboratory where researchers like Dr. Nichol and her team analyze information generated by the synchrotron.

Synchrotrons are powerful tools with the potential to advance many areas of science. Researchers can harness this machine to monitor gene activity in living animals or analyze the impact of environmental contaminants. Some day, it may be the key to better, safer x-rays for patients. In her own work, Dr. Nichol has used the synchrotron to show that copper levels in human brain tissue play an important role in a motor-neuron disease similar to ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

Unfortunately, not every health research institution has one of these massive machines at its disposal. The synchrotron at the Saskatoon-based Canadian Light Source (CLS) Centre cost $173.5 million to build and is one of only 42 such facilities in the world. This means that there is huge competition between researchers to get "beam time".

CIHR, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) have been working together to help more Canadian researchers take advantage of this terrific tool. In addition to providing funds for the construction of new beam lines at the facility, the collaboration has helped researchers from across the country use the CLS synchrotron, either in person or by sending in samples for analysis.

"The synchrotron used to just be the plaything of physicists and chemists, but health researchers are really taking over," says Dr. Nichol.

"The real advantage of the synchrotron is that it allows you to look at tissues in a whole new way. Sometimes you'll see something really unexpected."

Dr. Helen Nichol

Cooperation at the Nanoscale Level

Antonio Nanci, a researcher at the University of Montreal is trying to speak to cells on a level they can understand - the nanoscale level. And he's getting help through the Collaborative Health Research Projects (CHRP) program, a joint initiative of CIHR and NSERC.

"A cell cannot see something that is larger than itself," explains Dr. Nanci.

Whether it's an artificial tooth or a hip replacement, any man-made device that you implant in a person's body has to interact with cells. Normally, the interaction goes well and the implant is successful. But sometimes problems arise and disrupt the delicate relationship between the body's cells and the implant. Dr. Nanci and his colleagues have designed man-made materials that form healthier connections with the human body.

In a process called nanotexturing, Dr. Nanci and his team use chemicals to create tiny pore-like holes in the materials used to make implants. For reasons that are still unclear, these submicroscopic holes have a big impact on the way some cells behave. Bone cells, for example, thrive on the porous surfaces, suggesting that these special implants could actually promote the growth of healthy tissue. Bacteria cells, on the other hand, do not like to grow on the textured surfaces, so nanotexturing could be used to create implants that are less likely to sustain infection.

"The process we are studying, the interaction between cells and surfaces, is universal," says Dr. Nanci. So while his research focuses on creating nanotextured surfaces that will promote healthy healing around dental implants, the same technique could work for many types of implants, such as coronary artery stents.

This innovative project was made possible through the collaboration of researchers from multiple disciplines. With support from CHRP, Dr. Nanci, who has a background in cell biology, teamed up with combinatorial chemist Dr. James Wuest and surface physicist Dr. Frederico Rosei.

The goal of CHRP is to encourage researchers in the NSERC community to lend their knowledge and expertise to health research. In 2007, CIHR and NSERC signed an agreement to provide a combined $41.4 million in grants through CHRP over the next five years.

"CHRP has allowed me to team up with researchers who, by themselves, would never have applied for CIHR funding."

Dr. Antonio Nanci

Simplifying the Funding Process

Research cannot happen without funding. Before researchers can actually do research, they have to spend time drafting proposals and filing applications to funding organizations like CIHR. Quite frequently, they must submit applications to more than one funding agency to get the financial support they need. This process is a large administrative obstacle and slows down the research process. The Common CV (CCV) aims to cut down on the time and paperwork required to fund researchers.

Launched in July 2002, CCV is a web-based program that allows researchers to create standardized information profiles and submit them to multiple funding agencies, reducing the need to produce the same information over and over again. In 2007, CIHR, SSHRC, NSERC and CANTOR (Quebec's three research funding agencies) signed an agreement to expand their commitment to CCV. As part of this renewed commitment, the funding agencies will work to improve the CCV technology and better meet the needs of each subscribing agency.

Currently, there are more than 50,000 researchers using CCV and 17 funding organizations participating in the program. The organizations come together in the Forum of Health Research Funders, a partnership representing Canada's major health research funding organizations that is helping to guide the development of CCV. Researchers inputting information into CCV can specify which funding organizations can access their data. Not only does this tool streamline the funding process, it also has the potential to facilitate information sharing between funding agencies and research collaborations.

Facts and Figures

Approximate number of formal funding collaborations in 2007-08 involving CIHR and NSERC and/or SSHRC: 30
CIHR investment in the Canadian Light Source Program between 2003-04 and 2008-09: $10.5 million
Number of grants supported through CHRP, 2007-08: 51
CIHR investment in grants funded through CHRP, 2007-08: $3 million

Partnerships with Governments

CIHR's primary goal is a simple one: Make Canada a healthier place to live. But funding the best and the brightest researchers is not enough - we need to ensure that the results of their research are put into action. To do so, we work alongside Canada's decision makers and consider the challenges and resources unique to each region of the country. CIHR partnerships are making things happen at all levels of government, from coast to coast.

Health Researchers on Call

Gail Paech, the Assistant Deputy Minister responsible for e-health in the province of Ontario, is facing a big challenge. Ms. Paech is trying to help Ontario meet its goal of bringing electronic health records (EHRs) to the province by 2015. To help get her team up to speed on the latest research on EHRs, she came to CIHR.

Part of CIHR's mission is to smooth the long and complicated pathway from scientific discovery to applied technology by putting health research knowledge into action as quickly as possible.

A new CIHR program called Evidence on Tap is partnering researchers with policy makers in need of good research. The initiative brings together Canada's leading experts on current health research issues to form knowledge "dream teams". These teams of experts are then made available to decision makers at various levels of government to provide evidence to guide them in establishing health policy, through day-long knowledge exchanges known as Best Brain Consultations.

Recently, Ms. Paech organized a Best Brain Consultation for her team. CIHR brought in a group of researchers with knowledge of various aspects of e-health, from privacy to chronic disease management to physician adoption of EHRs. These researchers gave presentations and then engaged members of Ms. Paech's team in open discussions. More than 100 officials involved in the effort to bring EHRs to Ontario attended the consultation.

"I wanted to make people within the government's e-health program aware of some of the recent research findings," says Ms. Paech. "It was really a kick-start to provide information to a relatively new team starting a big project."

Overall, Ms. Paech feels that her team left the consultation with a better understanding of EHRs and stronger connections to the researchers studying this growing area of health policy. She feels that the Evidence on Tap program could be an important tool in speeding up the transfer of knowledge from research to policy.

"The reality is that technology is moving at the speed of light and that we are moving as fast as we can to incorporate that technology into our health-care system," explains Ms. Paech. "We don't want to use old technology or old evidence to build solutions for the future."

Building Big Research Potential in Small Places

What can a fish tell you about fighting human diseases? Quite a bit, it turns out.

Frederick Kibenge, a researcher at the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island, studies viral infections in fish, an important topic in a province where fishing is an economic cornerstone. But his research is also translating into potential health benefits for people.

One of the main focuses of his current research is analyzing the structure of a protein, known as VP1, found in birnaviruses, which cause diseases in fish and poultry. This protein is unique in that it is an RNA polymerase (an important type of protein involved in gene activity) with multiple functions.

"In other viruses, the jobs performed by VP1 are done by several different proteins," explains Dr. Kibenge. "So a drug that can inhibit VP1 shuts down several vital processes in the virus. This drug could potentially be used as a universal viral treatment that takes out many different kinds of viruses."

Dr. Kibenge's work may also help fight drug resistance. Viruses are infamous mutators; they quickly outsmart the medications designed to defeat them. That is why one of the most successful strategies for treating a virus is to hit it with a barrage of medications, known as a drug cocktail. By creating a drug capable of attacking a single virus from so many angles, you reduce the chances of the virus developing resistance. If Dr. Kibenge's research can add another drug to the cocktail, viruses will be less likely to survive the treatment.

Dr. Kibenge's innovative work is funded through CIHR's Regional Partnerships Program (RPP). This program, which began as a Medical Research Council initiative and was later expanded by CIHR, aims to promote research in less populous parts of Canada that typically don't receive a lot of research funding. Through this initiative, CIHR is helping build research capacity in Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. In addition to funding researchers in these regions, RPP is designed to encourage other partners, from provincial governments to local industries, to invest in health research. The ultimate goal of the program is to create environments across the country that can sustain health research communities.

"The Regional Partnerships Program has been very useful in helping researchers at smaller universities compete for grants."

Dr. Frederick Kibenge

Looking to the Past for a Healthier Future

Who you are and where you live have a huge impact on your health. Researchers have made great progress in identifying the factors that determine health, but applying that information to create healthier communities can be complicated. With the help of CIHR funding, a group of researchers at the Léa Roback Research Centre on Social Inequalities and Health, in Montreal, are trying to open new communication channels among social scientists, policy makers and the people they are trying to help. The Centre is one of seven research centres on population and public health throughout Canada supported by CIHR and its partners.

"We've developed a vision for a centre with multidisciplinarity at its core," explains Louise Potvin, the Scientific Director at Léa Roback. "And when we talk about multidisciplinarity, we mean it. We have everyone from political scientists to physicians to neurophysiologists to environmental experts."

The Centre's headquarters is co-located at the Direction de la santé publique de Montréal (DSP), the city's department of public health. This unique location gives Léa Roback's researchers direct contact with municipal government representatives and allows decision makers to get involved in research projects at very early stages and throughout the projects.

"We're developing a way of interacting with decision makers at the DSP so that we can build on their professional networks to put research into action," says Dr. Potvin. "And we're bringing the cream of the research community into those professional networks."

The partnership between the Léa Roback Centre and the DSP has resulted in some innovative knowledge translation activities, including a breakfast club where government representatives and community members can discuss research results with the Centre's researchers.

"Through this partnership, we've created a collaboration of researchers and decision makers with direct access to solid evidence that can highlight and enlighten public health questions," says Dr. Potvin.

Facts and Figures

  1. Estimate based on a keyword search.
CIHR investment in the Regional Partnerships Program in Prince Edward Island, 2000-01 to 2007-08: $1.1 million
Approximate number of researchers supported: 25
CIHR investment in the Regional Partnerships Program, 2000-01 to 2007-08: $29.5 million
Approximate number of researchers supported: 550
CIHR investment1 in electronic health records research, 2007-08: $1.6 million

Partnerships with the Private Sector

Canada faces tough questions about its role in the changing global economy. In this new economy, competitiveness and productivity are determined by how effectively and how rapidly nations can translate emerging knowledge into new and innovative products, practices, policies and services. Health-care innovations, fuelled by research, have significant economic potential for Canada. CIHR has been helping create important partnerships between the academic sector and the private sector, partnerships that will be essential to Canada's future competitiveness.

A Booster for Industry-University Partnerships

Ask Anne Snowdon about partnerships and she'll tell you about dominos. "The one thing I've learned is that you think you're doing one study but it leads to a lot more. It's been like a domino effect, with one partnership leading to another and another and so on," she observes.

In 2006, Dr. Snowdon, associate professor with the Odette School of Business at the University of Windsor, won the CIHR Partnership Award along with Dr. John Mann, recently retired Director of Engineering from Chrysler Canada and now Chair of the Board of Directors for the national Network of Centres of Excellence research network, AUTO21.

The two won the award based on the success of a joint effort to produce and test an information program to educate parents about the correct use of safety seats for children travelling in vehicles. According to Dr. Snowdon, the statistics are grim; each year, 90 to 100 children under the age of 12 die in vehicle collisions and thousands more are injured. Road crashes are the leading cause of death of children in Canada. Fortunately, this is almost entirely preventable - but only if children are using safety seats correctly.

The collaboration resulted in an education program called Bobby Shooster Rides Safely in his Booster. The project is in its final phases as Dr. Snowdon collects information about the program's effectiveness. But while the initial project is almost completed, it has engendered new partnerships and projects.

For example, in conducting the research for the Bobby Shooster education program, her team uncovered important data from children about attitudes and beliefs around booster seats, which led to another research project to study the issue further. She points out there are many concrete reasons why young kids don't want to be caught sitting in a booster seat - they're uncomfortable, booster seats are "for babies", etc. Parents also have their own barriers around boosters, such as ease of use.

Armed with this information, the partnership with Chrysler and a referral, Dr. Snowdon was able to open a door at Canadian auto parts giant Magna Inc., successfully pitching on the idea of making an innovative new child booster seat.

"We launched this partnership very quickly," she notes. "Four-to-five months later, the company had a prototype."

In fall 2006, Magna launched clekTM booster seats, featuring the first rigid LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system to be integrated into a backless booster seat. Magna now has two clekTM booster seat models, the oto and olli. Since its product launch, olli has won a number of industry awards, including the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association Innovation Award and the National Parenting Center's 2008 Seal of Approval. Meanwhile, Magna has been approached by 15 other countries to make the clekTM available to them.

"We're thrilled to have clekTM be a part of Dr. Snowdon's efforts to raise awareness for booster seat safety. clekTM was designed to deliver safety and convenience for parents as well as appeal and comfort for kids. We want to ensure parents have everything they need to feel comfortable using our booster seats."

Mr. Chris Lumley, clekTM brand, Vice-President, Magna Marque

Thinking Cows not Kids

Brett Finlay says the breakthrough came when he started thinking less about kids and more about animals. "I had one of those ice cream-in-the-forehead moments where I realized it's not the kids I need to be thinking about, it's the cows."

Dr. Finlay, a professor at the University of British Columbia and specialist in infectious diseases, is referring to the deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacterium. Found in undercooked ground beef, it can cause "hamburger disease". Left to contaminate water supplies, it can result in catastrophes such as Walkerton. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there are an estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths due to E. coli O157:H7 in the United States each year. It is a leading cause of foodborne illness.

Dr. Finlay's epiphany didn't immediately solve the problem of E. coli O157:H7 contamination. However, his new thinking helped focus research in the right direction, looking at how E. coli adheres, grows and is eventually shed in the manure from cattle.

The new focus of research ultimately led to the development of a revolutionary new bovine vaccine to block this deadly bacterium. Now, thanks to a partnership with Bioniche Life Sciences Inc., based in Belleville, Ontario, the vaccine is closer than ever to reaching the marketplace. Canada and, most recently, the United States have both granted Bioniche a conditional license to use the vaccine in feedlots.

"It has been an honour to work with gifted Canadian researchers like Dr. Finlay and our own Dr. Dragan Rogan on the advancement of this technology," says Graeme McRae, President and CEO of Bioniche Life Sciences Inc. "After eight years of development, we are entering the North American market with the world's first vaccine against the deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacterium. This is a made-in-Canada solution that should lessen the illness and death toll that results from human consumption of food and water contaminated with this organism."

Dr. Finlay adds, "What you've seen is basic, grind-it-out, microbiology supported by CIHR to help identify what regulates this system. This has been very useful in helping to come up with the product and the ideas for future generation products that will be even more effective."

Too Much Growth Is a Bad Thing

Nasreen Khalil, lung specialist at the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, wants to give her patients a bit more time to create peace for themselves before they die. Ideally, she wants to help stop the growth of scar producing cells in a disease known as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). In IPF, the scar producing cells grow in an uncontrolled manner and damage the lungs beyond repair. There is less than a 20% survival rate for this disease after five years. This is a medical crisis when it is appreciated that IPF may affect as many as 23-35 people per 100,000.

Lung tissue has one role, to distribute oxygen as thoroughly and efficiently as possible. Normal, healthy tissue has a delicate and flexible, lace-like structure critical for providing maximum transfer of oxygen into the blood. But, with IPF, this structure is overgrown with huge amounts of scar tissue. It would be like taking a fine piece of lace and replacing the delicate threads with thick and inflexible strips of plastic strapping. "What you see is nothing more than a hard chunk of fibroblast and connective tissue. Normal tissue becomes twisted, stretched and gnarled beyond recognition," Dr. Khalil says. She adds that "people with IPF face a miserable death; they feel like they're drowning."

Dr. Khalil is now in the second phase of funding under CIHR's Proof of Principle Program, an initiative designed to help researchers take promising discoveries out of the lab and into the marketplace. As part of her work, Dr. Khalil has teamed up with Vancouver-based Pacific Therapeutics Ltd. to commercialize a new drug that can stop IPF. As she explains, IPF results from a protein known as Transforming Growth Factor-beta1 (TGF-b1). This protein plays a major role in helping create scar tissue and, in the case of IPF, is able to change into a more active state and cause excess growth of scar cells. Dr. Khalil's team, however, has created a special protein that is natural to the body, called CD36, a peptide capable of preventing TGF-b1 from changing into a harmful form in the lungs.

In experiments with rats, treatment with the peptide has been shown to slow and even prevent the onset of IPF. The focus of the partnership is to come up with the ideal form of the peptide and the optimal treatment approach. Dr. Khalil points out that the technology could be used for a number of other conditions where excessive scarring poses a serious risk, such as progressive asthma or restenosis of the arteries following angioplasty.

Facts and Figures

  1. Overlap between the 3 subcategories.
Approximate number of CIHR private-sector partners contributing funds, 2007-08: 80
Approximate number of spin-off companies related to CIHR/MRC funding: 150
Proof of Principle projects for which final reports have been received: 148
Percentage that contributed to new company formation1: 14%
Percentage that have resulted in new patents1: 76%
Percentage that have resulted in licensing agreements1: 26%
Number of trainees directly supported by CIHR/industry partnerships, 2007-08: 218
Number of CIHR/industry-funded research chairs supported, 2007-08: 26

International Partnerships

Research in the 21st century is an international undertaking - and, in the area of health, Canada is consistently hitting above its weight. Canadian researchers are, in the words of the Government of Canada's Science and Technology Strategy, performing at world-class levels of scientific and technological excellence. In November 2006, Canadian health researchers won 18 of 39 awards given out by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute - awards that recognize the accomplishments and promise of biomedical researchers who are recognized pacesetters in their fields.

Providing the Foundation for Drug Discovery: A World-Leading Partnership

Aled Edwards is interested in virology and the innate immune system. But the University of Toronto researcher has next to no time for his own research these days. "I'm diminishing my own projects because this one commands and deserves my full attention," he says.

The project that's pulling him away from his own research is the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), of which he is the chief executive. The international group of scientists he heads is determining the three-dimensional structures of proteins that are relevant to human health. Access to these structures can cut months, even years off the lengthy drug development process.

The SGC is the leading structural biology project in the world focusing on proteins from humans and human parasites, such as the one that causes malaria. In its first phase, from 2004-2007, it was mandated to produce 386 novel structures of proteins of relevance to human health - a goal it reached ahead of schedule and under budget. In its recently approved second phase, its goal is to produce a further 660 structures.

As soon as these structures are determined, they are immediately placed in the public domain, available to researchers everywhere to speed the research process, with no restrictions on their use.

"That's the whole point. This information, like that of the human genome, belongs to a class of information that has been proven to be of the most use when it's publicly available," says Dr. Edwards. "As soon as you start talking about who owns the intellectual property, it opens up a quagmire of legal problems and slows down the research both in academia and in industry."

The SGC is a public-private partnership, with more than 180 researchers from Canada, the United Kingdom and Sweden. It receives support from CIHR, Genome Canada (through the Ontario Genomics Institute), the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, the Ontario Innovation Trust, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Vinnova Swedish Agency of Innovation, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, the Karolinska Institute, Wellcome Trust, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Merck.

Dr. Edwards says the international nature of the SGC is part of its strength. "Science is a cultural phenomenon. People take different approaches to problems depending on where they've been trained," he says. "It's very constructive to have three different cultural backgrounds attacking the same problem."

Dr. Edwards' excitement at being involved with the SGC is palpable. "The idea that there are thousands and thousands of proteins inside us that are mysteries is really exciting," he says. "It plays to my personality type - I'm a hopping-around, attention-deficit kind of guy. And it turns out that I'm pretty good at running things."

Bolstering the Search for an HIV Vaccine

Keith Fowke has spent 20 years engrossed in a mystery: why is it that women in Kenya who have been exposed to the HIV virus repeatedly, over many years, don't contract HIV?

Dr. Fowke, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba, believes that discovering why these women are resistant to HIV holds the key to developing an effective HIV vaccine.

"The answer is there," he says with some frustration. "We just need to be smart enough to find it and then duplicate it in other individuals."

Finding a vaccine is the holy grail of HIV research - but success has, to date, been elusive. Now, however, the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI) is giving the search renewed vigour. The initiative, a partnership between the Government of Canada (including CIHR) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is a new effort to accelerate the development of an HIV/AIDS vaccine. It will support Canadian researchers and institutions in working with collaborators around the world, including in developing countries, on a range of HIV vaccine research activities.

The Canadian effort will be helped, Dr. Fowke says, by the appointment of CIHR's inaugural President Alan Bernstein as Executive Director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise. Dr. Bernstein's experience with CIHR will lead to greater recognition of the strength of Canadian research and the excellence of CIHR's researchers on the international scene, he says. The CHVI will be aligned with the global enterprise.

Dr. Fowke had already been affected by the generosity of the Gates Foundation, as a research partner with Dr. Francis Plummer, the 2007 CIHR Health Researcher of the Year. Their research has been transformed, Dr. Fowke says, by the funding they received from the Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health. Now he is hoping to continue his association with the Foundation through the CHVI.

Dr. Fowke admits that working for 20 years without a successful vaccine to show for it can be frustrating. But he remains convinced that HIV resistance provides hope for success. And, he says, the optimism and enthusiasm of his collaborators in Kenya and the resistant women themselves give him hope.

Sharing Work, Sharing Lives

Chen Huai loves Ottawa. She loves the museums, she loves the way people speak English and French seemingly interchangeably and she loves the enthusiasm that CIHR employees show for their work.

"I was able to stay with a family [at a bed-and-breakfast] and this made me feel at home," she says. "I like the museums in Ottawa that made me learn more about the history and art of Canada."

Ms. Chen is the Division Director of the Bureau of International Cooperation of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), CIHR's partner in the Canada-China Joint Health Research Initiative. The program funded 15 projects in 2006-07 and 20 new joint research projects in 2007-08. Ms. Chen spent a month in Ottawa in the fall of 2007, learning about CIHR's structure and organization, particularly its peer review process, which is admired by funding agencies around the world.

"I have learnt a lot through this program from the experience of our CIHR colleagues, especially how they organize joint review panels and related works," she says. "I am sharing what I learnt with my colleagues here in NSFC and Chinese scientists in the hope of further promoting China-Canada cooperation in scientific research."

And her advice for others embarking on a similar mission?

"Try to meet people and share views with them. This is what I enjoyed the most and that made me learn a lot. Meeting people face-to-face is much more effective to get mutual understanding."

Facts and Figures

  1. Estimate based on a keyword search.
Approximate number of countries involved in international linkages with CIHR researchers: 50
CIHR investment1 in research related to international HIV/AIDS, 2007-08: $3.4 million
CIHR investment in the Structural Genomics Consortium Program between 2003-04 and 2011-12: $19 million
Approximate number of CIHR Training Award recipients conducting research outside Canada, 2007-08: 240
Number of projects supported under the Canada-China Joint Health Research Initiative, 2007-08: 35

Partnerships with the Public

CIHR doesn't just strive to improve the health of all Canadians; we want to involve them in shaping the research that impacts their lives. We want to open up lines of communication between members of the public and the researchers we fund. That is why we have initiated numerous programs that bring members of the public into the discussion of health research.

A Public Perspective on Health Research

All of life is a learning opportunity for Shirley Dzogan.

Her passion for acquiring new knowledge propelled her through her early university studies in microbiology and virology and on to a career as a lab technologist. After graduation, she continued to take courses and study different aspects of public health, all while raising a family. She now works for Manitoba's Department of Health as a consultant with portfolio responsibility in the Provincial Laboratory and Diagnostic Services and Manitoba Renal Program.

"I'm a great believer in continuous learning, at whatever stage you happen to be in life," says Ms. Dzogan.

Shirley Dzogan has continued her pursuit of knowledge by volunteering as a CIHR community reviewer. In doing so, she helps represent the Canadian public on CIHR's peer review committees.

The peer review process is a time-honoured tradition in which researchers from a specific field come together to judge the merit of a particular research project. Scientific journals use this process to determine which papers they will publish; CIHR and other funding agencies use it to decide which research projects will receive funding.

Deciding who to fund is a complicated task and it is ultimately determined by experienced researchers who donate their time and expertise to CIHR. But CIHR recognizes that this process should also be open to the public, the ultimate beneficiaries of health research.

"Having worked in a science environment, I knew that applying for funding was a competitive process," explains Ms. Dzogan. "But it wasn't until I became a community reviewer that I realized just how competitive it was. There are an incredible number of extremely talented researchers working in Canada."

As a community reviewer, Ms. Dzogan must read descriptions of applicants' projects and offer a non-researcher's perspective on their proposed research. She must consider what types of questions a member of the public might have about the project and whether the public will understand why the project is important. She then meets with CIHR's peer reviewers and shares her thoughts and comments.

"I've noticed a change in the review panel over the years I've been participating as a community reviewer. The researchers are no longer asking me what I think my role is or what I get out of participating in the review process - they know I enjoy it," says Ms. Dzogan. "Now they really look to me and the other community reviewers to see what we will have to say about an applicant's project."

"It can be very difficult for researchers who have dedicated a good portion of their lives to a very specialized area of research to convey to the public why that research is important."

Ms. Shirley Dzogan

Science Class North of 60

Karen Morrison recently spent three days in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, talking to students about her experiences as a female researcher and about the connection between the environment and health, as part of a Dream Team bringing health research to communities in Canada's Territories.

"I showed the kids pictures of graduate work I'd done in the Caribbean. They wanted to talk about the different kinds of boats and animals. They really enjoyed looking at pictures of what other fishing communities look like," says Dr. Morrison.

The Dream Team program sends high school teachers and scientists to Northern towns like Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk and Iqaluit to host week-long summer camps. Students participate in fun science experiments, such as building solar-powered ovens and extracting DNA from bananas, and they get to learn about careers in science.

For Canadian students living in the Far North, the opportunity to interact with mentors from different professions, particularly in the health sciences, can be rare. CIHR is working to connect researchers with kids in Northern communities in fun and exciting ways. The activity is part of CIHR's youth outreach initiative, Synapse. Actua, a non-profit organization that aims to cultivate an interest in science, technology and engineering in Canada's youth and one of Synapse's key partners, hosts the activity.

Dr. Morrison volunteered for the Dream Team camp while she was doing her post-doctoral studies at the Nasivvik Centre, a CIHR-funded centre dedicated to studying Inuit health and climate change based at Trent and Laval Universities. While in Rankin Inlet, she had the students, who ranged in age from 6 to 12, draw pictures about what health and environment meant to them. According to Dr. Morrison, the students were very insightful.

"One young girl asked if she could draw a sunset, because she felt it represented mental health. She just interpreted the project that way on her own," she says.

The students' interest and enthusiasm have left her excited about the Dream Team program. "The kids really responded to the program," says Dr. Morrison. "I think we should be taking advantage of the wide network of researchers and graduate students who are already working in Northern areas. It would be a great way for researchers working in these communities to give something back."

Health Research for the People!

Last fall, Science World British Columbia discovered just how thirsty the public can be for a little scientific discussion.

Science World is a non-profit organization that promotes science to B.C. families through interactive exhibits at their museum in Vancouver and community outreach programs throughout the province. The museum educates and entertains half a million visitors each year. Science World is constantly looking for new ways to promote learning in the community and found an interesting opportunity to do that through CIHR's Café Scientifique program.

"We had been informally trying to organize with our own staff and friends some small science conversations in pubs or cafes," says Tammy Matheson, Director of Business Operations at Science World British Columbia. "Then we heard about CIHR's Café Scientifique grant program and decided to apply to see if we could host a larger-scale event."

A Café Scientifique allows researchers and members of the public to meet in a relaxed atmosphere to discuss the latest research on a pressing scientific issue. In October 2007, Science World used a CIHR grant to organize a Café on nutrition entitled "Food for Thought". The event touched on a variety of nutrition issues, from how the foods we eat affect our health, to understanding nutrition buzzwords, to incorporating nutritious foods into our daily diet. The Café's panelists included two CIHR-funded researchers, a registered dietician and a cookbook writer.

"We received a lot of positive feedback from the people who attended, particularly about the format of the Café," says Ms. Matheson. "They really enjoyed being able to connect with the researchers in an informal way through the interaction and discussion that evolved during the Café."

CIHR is trying to promote dialogue between researchers and the public through its Café Scientifique program, partnering with museums, science centres and universities throughout Canada to host Cafés on a wide range of health research topics. As for Science World British Columbia, it's already planning another Café for 2008, this time about understanding the criminal mind.

"The people who attended really enjoyed being able to connect with the researchers in an informal way through the interaction and discussion that evolved during the Café."

Ms. Tammy Matheson

Facts and Figures

Approximate number of Community Reviewers, 2007-08: 15
Number of Café Scientifique partnerships, 2007-08: 18
Number of Café Scientifiques, 2007-08: 24
Approximate number of people who attended a CIHR Café Scientifique, 2007-08: 1,800
Number of Synapse partnerships, 2007-08: 13
Number of researchers signed up as mentors: 4,171
Number of students reached directly by Synapse, 2007-08: 21,842
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