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Medical research helps create a healthy economy

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The first goal of health research is to find new ways to improve the health of individuals.

But having a robust research community can also help boost the health of the local economy, an important point that is often overlooked.

Health research in Manitoba involves hundreds of people working at various institutes and centres located in various facilities, including the University of Manitoba, the Winnipeg Health Region, Health Sciences Centre and St-Boniface Hospital Research Centre.

But most researchers are affiliated in some way with the University of Manitoba, which also attracts the largest health research investment in the province.

In the fiscal year 2010/11, the U of M received $167 million in total research funding, according to Gary Glavin, Associate Vice-President (Research) for the university.

About half that amount would flow through the University's Faculty of Medicine, according to Dr. Peter Nickerson, Associate Dean (Research) for the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine. The rest would flow through other healthrelated faculties, including kinesiology and recreation management, nursing, and science.

Much of the money spent on research in Manitoba comes from sources outside the province, such as the National Institute of Health Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the Canada Research Chairs Program. The Manitoba Health Research Council spends about $6 million a year on local research.

Nickerson says the economic benefits of research are broad and varied.

"The first thing research does is employ people," says Nickerson. "It's employing knowledge workers in Manitoba who are absolutely critical to our economy."

Nickerson says the U of M's Faculty of Medicine has approximately 300 lead investigators on staff, including many who also teach at the university and/or work within the health-care system. Those investigators will have a support staff of graduate students, resulting in as many as 1,000 people involved in research in the Faculty of Medicine alone.

One of the less appreciated aspects of health research is how important it is to driving improvements in local care.

Nickerson cites as an example the work done in kidney transplantation a little more than a decade ago. In the late 1990s, researchers and medical staff at Health Sciences Centre started work on developing a new way of testing the compatibility of kidney donors and transplant patients to reduce rejection rates. Their new crossmatching approach, introduced in 2000, ended up boosting the kidney transplant success rate from 90 per cent to 99 per cent.

"We made that our standard of care here a decade ago," says Nickerson. "But it did not get established right across this country until 2010. That's a decade delay. I think that shows you that if you are investing in research and clinical development, it brings better patient care here to Manitobans sooner than in other places."

Occasionally, research can also lead to the creation of stand-alone companies. Research by Drs. Bruce Chown and John Bowman led to the development of a vaccine for Rh disease in pregnant women. That led to the establishment of a Winnipeg company to make and distribute the vaccine. That company eventually became Cangene, which employs about 500 people in Winnipeg and has two offices in the United States.

But research helps the economy in other ways as well. For example, researchers were able to demonstrate that increasing the number of kidney transplants done in Manitoba could actually save money over the longer term by reducing the need for those individuals to be on dialysis. And, of course, improved treatments and care will often lead to helping people get well sooner and back to work quicker. "And that," says Nickerson, "means that they are able to work and contribute to the economy."

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