Science & Research

Making a difference

The Manitoba Health Research Council has supported more than 1,300 health researchers over the last 30 years. In doing so, it has spurred numerous improvements to the delivery of health care in this province and helped build Manitoba's reputation as a leader in health research.

Dr. Jim Davie holds a slide that has been prepared to be analyzed by a gene sequencing machine.
Dr. Jim Davie holds a slide that has been prepared to be analyzed by a gene sequencing machine.
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Investing in excellence

BY MURRAY MCNEILL
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2012

In 1983, a man who would go on to become one of the province's most accomplished health researchers arrived in Winnipeg, eager to establish a program in the field of epigenetics, the study of factors that influence the operation of genes.

Dr. Jim Davie was born in England and spent his childhood in Winnipeg before moving to Vancouver as a teen. He obtained a Bachelor of Science degree and a PhD from the University of British Columbia and did his post-doctoral training in chromatin structure and function at Oregon State University.

He was returning to his home province because the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine had offered him a research/ teaching contract. It also gave him $30,000 to put toward the establishment of a research laboratory.

While the university money was a big help, it wasn't enough to cover the cost of setting up a lab. That meant Davie had to find additional funding from somewhere else. So he turned to the Manitoba Health Research Council (MHRC), a new funding body created the previous year by the provincial government to serve as the go-to place for health research funding in the province.

There was a lot riding on Davie's submission to the MHRC. If he couldn't obtain the extra funding he needed, his research/teaching contract at the University of Manitoba would not be renewed, and he'd be looking for another job and another place to hang his research hat.

Fortunately, his proposal was impressive enough to land him an establishment grant from the newly minted research council. That provided him with the extra money needed to properly equip his lab and stock it with the necessary supplies. It also helped him land a scholarship from the Medical Research Council of Canada, now known as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Davie received MHRC funding that year, and again in fiscal 1992/93. After nearly three decades, he doesn't recall exactly how much he received from the council that first year, but he does remember how important the money was to his budding research career.

"Getting the (MHRC) award made a world of difference," he says. "I was able to focus on my research."

It also changed his status at the University of Manitoba. He went from being a contract employee to a contingent faculty member, which later led to a tenure track position with the university.

"Going from contract to contingent was a huge step forward," he says. "And having that (MHRC funding) told the department and the university I was a credible researcher."

The MHRC's help didn't end there for Davie. Some of the graduate students working in his research program have also received Graduate Studentship Awards from the MHRC, which meant money he would have spent on student salaries could be used to buy more lab equipment and supplies. Davie says it's difficult to say what would have happened if he hadn't received MHRC support. Maybe he would have found funding somewhere else, but maybe not.

"All I can say is that I got it at a time when it was really needed. It was a critical time in my research career, no question," he says.

There are cancer patients who, all these years later, are also benefitting from the support Davie received from the MHRC. He says his research in those early years identified a group of compounds, called histone deacetylase inhibitors, which are effective in inhibiting a particular enzyme that fuels the growth of cancer cells.

Preventing that enzyme from functioning properly not only stopped cancer cells from growing, but eventually caused them to die. Other international researchers picked up on his findings, and subsequently developed new inhibitor drugs that are now being used in the treatment of some cancers.

Davie says he would have liked to have been the one who carried that particular research through to the end, "but it was nice to have played a role."

Today, Davie is still involved in epigenetics research at the University of Manitoba. He's a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Medical Genetics, Scientific Director for the MHRC, and Leader of the Terry Fox Research Institute Prairie Node. He also holds a Canada Research Chair in Chromatin Dynamics and is past-president of the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences.

Davie is one of 1,312 researchers who have received MHRC funding over the past three decades. During that time, MHRC has funded 1,994 research projects, including 84 in fiscal 2011/12.

In supporting these and hundreds of other researchers, the MHRC has helped spur numerous improvements to the delivery of health care in this province and played a pivotal role in building Manitoba's reputation as a leader in health research.

As Christina Weise, Executive Director of the Manitoba Health Research Council, points out, "MHRC plays a catalytic role in the province's health research community and gives researchers the start they need to accomplish great things in Manitoba."

As the MHRC marks 30 years of service this year, Weise says much of the credit for the agency's success and contributions must go to those who helped get it off the ground.

One of the driving forces behind the creation of the MHRC was Dr. Arnold Naimark, President Emeritus of the University of Manitoba and Dean of its Faculty of Medicine from 1971 to 1981.

In the late 1970s, Naimark gave a speech in Winnipeg in which he urged the Manitoba government to follow the lead of other provinces and create its own health research fund. The news media picked up on the story, and the government soon began talks with him and other key industry players, including Drs. Henry Friesen and Lyonel Israels. Those talks led to the creation of the MHRC.

Naimark says he originally proposed that the government allocate one-tenth of one per cent of its annual health-care budget as funding for health research - or about $2 million. At the time, that was the standard used by many jurisdictions to set health-care research funding.

The province did give the MHRC about $500,000 in 1982. But it didn't tie the funding to future increases in health-care spending, as Naimark had suggested, so the agency's level of funding grew slowly to about $1.95 million in 1994/95, where it remained until 2002/03. By 2006, MHRC funding climbed to $6 million, where it remains today.

Now as then, the question remains: Is that enough funding to support health research?

Naimark says if the province had adopted his original funding formula, the council would now be receiving between $20 million and $25 million per year. Instead, the level of funding here ranks in the bottom one-third among the provinces per capita. Only New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and the Territories spend less on health research.

As costs rise and the number of research applicants grows - 298 this fiscal year alone - MHRC officials have asked the province for a substantial increase in funding, in the range of $12 million, an amount first referred to in the MHRC's 2006 strategy paper.

Weise says that level of funding would allow the MHRC to leverage additional funds from other funding partners it works with, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the CancerCare Manitoba Foundation, the Health Sciences Foundation, and the University of Manitoba.

In 2011, for example, MHRC leveraged an additional $2.1 million in partnership funding to go with the $6 million it received from the province. With $12 million in funding from the province, Weise estimates the MHRC might be able to leverage an additional $8 million, for a total of $20 million in funding. Researchers would then be able to use MHRC funding to leverage other financial contributions.

Dr. Brian Postl, Dean of the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine and Chair of MHRC's Board of Directors, says the council's funding acts as "seed money" that researchers use to leverage additional funding from other organizations, such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research or Heart and Stroke Canada.

He says, on average, every $1 of MHRC research funding attracts $6 in additional funding from other organizations (this includes the additional contributions that researchers leverage after receiving their initial MHRC funding). "So the more money the province puts in, the more money it brings in."

If MHRC funding was increased, it would not only help local researchers leverage additional funding from other sources, it would also enable the council and its clients to participate in a new patient-oriented research program recently announced by CIHR. "We are going to require some matching funds from the province to be able to attract some of that federal money," Postl says.

The MHRC would also like to expand some of its existing programs and develop new initiatives.

Weise notes the council's role has evolved over the years, from that of a funding body to a funding/co-ordinating body that's also involved in the planning and implementation of new health-research strategies and in fostering increased co-operation between the different players within the health-research community.

The last increase in funding made a huge difference in terms of research in this province because it allowed MHRC to establish the Manitoba Research Chair Program, which provides $500,000 over five years to "star" researchers. The program has been used to support 11 Chairs since the program's inception in 2008.

Looking ahead, the MHRC would like to use any additional funding to support the development of "research clusters," not just in Winnipeg, but throughout the province. (Research clusters are groups of researchers from different backgrounds who share expertise to advance research in a specific area.) The additional funding would help Manitoba recruit and retain scientific talent, something that is always a challenge because many of the other provinces Manitoba competes with, including the other three western provinces, have larger health research budgets, and researchers often go where the money is.

In any case, Postl says everyone realizes that the provincial government recognizes the value of Manitoba's research community, not just in terms of delivering better health care, but also as a driver of the provincial economy. The question is whether the province will be in a position to chip in more money next year.

"They know we're very interested in expanding our research activity," says Postl. "But we've got to wait and see how the provincial economy does. There are lots of people looking for increases (in funding) at a time when dollars are hard to come by."

Wave: November / December 2012

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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