MRC Communiqué Winter/Spring 1996
MEDICAL RESEARCH COUNCIL OF CANADA
by Jane Evans,
University of Manitoba,
MRC Regional Director
HE WINDS ARE BLOWING THROUGH THE HALLS OF THE
Not the icy blasts of yet another snowstorm, nor, we hope, just hot air and rhetoric, but the winds of change. The university, and in particular the Faculty of Medicine, is in a period of reflection and reorganization.
Some of the challenges faced in this process - curriculum reform, renegotiation of faculty contracts, the spectre of "downsizing" - are hardly unique to our institution. Others reflect more directly the nature of our university and its regional circumstances.
A team of researchers led by Dr. Larry Jordan are part of an
international effort to regenerate damaged nerve tissue. The discovery of
"pace-maker" cells has led to speculation that it might be possible for a
person to regain the ability to walk after a serious accident.
As a result of this initiative, an operational plan has been proposed for a Manitoba Health Research and Development Council to replace the current MHRC, and other recent developments have been encouraging. These include the establishment of the MRC Regional Partnerships Program; a provincial initiative to provide matching funds for infrastructure support, and the construction of the University Downtown Centre - a joint University and Foundations for Health venture designed to provide needed research space, as well as new library and recreational facilities.
We have established a Steering Committee for the Regional Partnerships Program and begun the process of identifying current and emerging areas of strength and uniqueness. The committee is surveying the research community to document these areas and the criteria that individual researchers use to identify them. We anticipate that many emerging areas can be strengthened through this process and that new collaborations will be supported. However, there is already a strong foundation on which to build, and the successes of some of our well established research teams should be highlighted.
Dr. Patricia Nance (left), with patient Garry Ollson, shows the
innovative baclofen pump which is part of a treatment technique developed by
the Spinal Cord Research Centre to reduce muscle spasms of patients with spinal
cord injuries or muscular diseases.
The experimental cardiology program headed by Dr. Naranjan Dhalla at the St. Boniface General Hospital Research Centre is another flagship group that has seen its efforts pay off in terms of an MRC group grant. The team's goal is an ambitious one: to understand and prevent factors that cause coronary heart disease. Dr. Dhalla emphasizes the multidisciplinary nature of the program and the benefits of looking at problems using several different approaches. He has stated that two main thrusts govern the direction of the research. First, group members are seeking to understand how heart cells are damaged by loss of blood flow and, more specifically, the roles high blood pressure and cholesterol play in priming the heart and arteries for ischemic damage. Second, they are studying the impact of congestive heart failure on the heart and how such changes might be prevented. Already, the group has played a major role in the development of calcium entry blockers to correct calcium overload in the heart due to membrane damage, and they were the first to show the antioxidant effects of Vitamin E.
Healing the heart: Dr. Naranjan Dhalla heads the experimental
cardiology program that won $5.2 million in support from the Medical Research
Only two years before Dr. Joanne Embree started her research on
perinatal AIDS, the possibility that children could get HIV was generally
AIDS is obviously an area where researchers are acutely aware of the bleak future faced by many of their human subjects. However, the team has been touched by death in an even more personal way. A recent accident in Kenya took the lives of several people involved with the program, including local physicians and a student, a sober reminder that the joy and satisfaction of doing research may be accompanied by very real adversity, as well as the occasional disappointment and discouragement faced by many.
In the programs referred to above, both biomedical and more clinically oriented projects play important and complementary roles. Since "health" research has long been another of our strengths, many local researchers were encouraged by MRC's broadening of its mandate to include population health and social and behaviourial determinants of health and research into health services outcomes. Drs. Leslie and NoraLou Roos at the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy and Evaluation will continue to lead projects on population-based measures for health policy and planning as part of a new National Network of Centres of Excellence - the "Health Research Network." Dr. Patricia Kaufert of the Department of Community Health Sciences has also been funded through one of the new MRC committees for her project: "The use of health care services by women living in the province of Manitoba." Obviously, further integration of the expertise of epidemiologists, sociologists, medical anthropologists and related specialists into our more biomedically based research teams could have mutually beneficial results.
Although the programs I have mentioned are based in the Faculty of Medicine, our strategic planning process is committed to fostering development of health research in other faculties and collaborations both within the university community and with outside partners, including industry.
One endeavour that clearly demonstrates our potential in this area has been the establishment of the Manitoba Antibiotic Research Laboratory under the directorship of Dr. George Zhanel.
Dr. George Zhanel is head
of the Manitoba Antibiotic Research Laboratory.
The success of these programs is due in large part to the people involved in them. In these days of fiscal restraint and cut-backs, people will continue to be the University's most valuable resource. We need to guide and encourage our trainees and provide meaningful career opportunities for faculty and research support staff. It was very gratifying that eight Manitoba researchers ranked highly enough in the March 1995 competition to qualify for studentship vouchers, a number surpassed only by McGill University, the University of Toronto and Université de Montréal. In addition, we were pleased to host the pilot program for the Jobs Creation Initiative, funded by MRC and Human Resources Development Canada. Most of the trainees from that pilot program have found employment in research or have gone on postgraduate training, and its success has led to the establishment of similar programs across the country.
Finally, I would like to end this update from the University of Manitoba with the announcement of the latest "recruit" to our health research community. Dr. Emöke Szathmáry will take up her position as president of the university on July 1, 1996. An eminent administrator and health researcher, Dr. Szathmáry is well known for her work on population genetics and susceptibility to diabetes in Dogrib populations. We wish her well and look forward to her academic leadership in these challenging times; there is little doubt that the winds of change will continue to blow well into the 21st century.