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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
Read the November / December 2012 issue of Wave