Medical research sector thriving in province


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The development of a medical research institution can be a tricky business unless there’s an unlimited source of capital to keep plowing into the enterprise.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/05/2016 (2453 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The development of a medical research institution can be a tricky business unless there’s an unlimited source of capital to keep plowing into the enterprise.

The St. Boniface General Hospital does not have that kind of capital, but it’s picking up steam.

Last year, when Paul Albrechtsen donated another $5 million — on top of the $2 million he’d previously donated to St. Boniface — he became the most significant donor in the hospital’s 145-year history.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Bram Ramjiawan (left) and Grant Pierce say the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre has a number of promising projects underway.

The St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre was renamed the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre (SBHARC), and the donation helped increase the the endowment fund from $15 million to more than $30 million and wiped out the last vestiges of the deficit the research centre has carried.

Grant Pierce, executive director of research for the past 11 years, was one of the original team of five principal investigators that helped start the centre back in the late ‘80s.

“Now, this is a mature, fully occupied research facility with 250 full-time researchers and an operating budget of about $15 million annually,” he said.

Researchers at SBHARC have a better-than-average track record of success in funding applications and have established a number of successful partnerships with private-sector funders such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

In the intervening years, the I.H. Asper Clinical Research Institute has also filled with additional research, patient care and a busy clinical-research and clinical-trial enterprise headed by Bram Ramjiawan, who is one of the leading authorities on regulatory requirements of clinical trials and who sits on the biggest European and American panels.

Arguably SBHARC’s most famous discovery so far was Pierce’s own work, originally published in 2012, that showed that 30 grams of flaxseed each day for six months can lower blood pressure and which could result in about a 50 per cent reduction of strokes and 30 per cent fewer heart attacks. (The next trial is about to get underway, giving flaxseed to people with high blood pressure who are not already on hypertension medicine.)

But Pierce points to the centre’s track record of success in commercializing research — three out of 10 projects were spun off as independent companies are still operating — as well as the pipeline of therapeutics that are in varying stages of development as proof of the centre’s contributions and impact in the market.

“We now have three more that look pretty exciting that are not at the spin-off stage yet, but at various stages of patenting,” Pierce said.

One of them has the potential to be the first drug ever to treat diabetic neuropathy, nerve damage that can occur in feet and legs of diabetics. Patients lose the sense of pain in the region and are then to susceptible to infections that often lead to amputations.

Dr. Paul Fernyhough, director of the division of neurodegenerative disorders at the research centre, has patented a compound that may cause nerve re-generation, formed a company called WinSanTor along with colleagues in San Diego and Toronto and is in phase II clinical trials.

“It is an old drug that is being repurposed,” said Ramjiawan. “There are drugs that treat the needle pain sensation some diabetics gets. But this is different. This is for nerve regrowth.”

Another therapeutic drug treatment to treat fibrosis is being led by Michael Czubryt, principal investigator in molecular pathophysiology, is at an earlier stage of development.

“I am convinced we are sitting on three or four things that could be worth billions. But it is the age-old challenge — how to make sure if and when it happens we don’t just hand it all over to Big Pharma,” said Chuck LeFleche, CEO of the St. Boniface Hospital Foundation.

That’s why SBHARC’s model that includes the continuum from basic science to clinical trials — from bench to bedside — is so promising. It allows the institution to retain control of the innovation further through development.

That and several other elements have helped make SBHARC the top-ranked research intensive hospital in Western Canada by Research Infosource and the 29th largest research facility in the country, second only to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority in Manitoba.

Christina Weise, the CEO of Research Manitoba, said there are other research facilities that do it, but the one at St. Boniface has put together the right mix of relevant research with the attendant funding support of the hospital, the University of Manitoba (virtually all the researchers are faculty members of the U of M) the province and the national research funding bodies.

“It is not a coincidence that the cardiac program within the WHRA exists at St. Boniface and that they have an associated biomedical research group that sometimes works quite closely with the clinicians,” she said. “That is a really important thing that research centres do.”



Martin Cash

Martin Cash

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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