The world is in the midst of profound social, scientific, and technological change. How Canada responds to these changes will determine our future quality of life, career opportunities for young Canadians, and whether we will be globally competitive and productive.
Our future success as a nation will depend on our ability to attract and retain top scientific talent (what The Economist magazine recently called “The world’s most sought-after commodity on the planet”), to generate new ideas and transfer them into new products, new policies, and new services.
Real, cutting-edge research is tough to do. But, transforming research into action is even tougher. This process, called knowledge translation or innovation, involves meaningful interaction between researchers and the users of research.
Canada’s track record of innovation is as good as anywhere, but that speaks less to our successes than to how difficult it is to harness scientific research to drive the policy process, change clinical practice, or create successful companies.
Like Canada, other countries have recognized that governments have a critical role to play in supporting long-term, ‘up-stream’ fundamental research, and research for the public good (e.g. research on wait times, palliative care, the environment, and health). For the private sector, the former is simply too risky and too long term, while the latter is unlikely to lead to any marketable product or service. The implicit deal is that governments fund this research (largely in universities and academic health centres) and the private sector then builds on these ideas to create economic value.
But the high risk of failure and long timelines involved in transforming science into a profitable company suggests that governments and research funders should do more. CIHR has recognized this by creating the Proof of Principle (POP) program. POP provides critical one-year funding to enable researchers to add further commercial value to their discoveries before seeking private capital. For example, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Drs. Abdoli-Eramaki and Dr. Stevenson received a CIHR POP grant to help reduce workers’ risk of lower back disability. That grant allowed the researchers to hire an industrial designer who helped them transform their cumbersome prototype into a marketable product.
The growth of Neuromed from a small spin-off company to a company with close to a $500 million deal with Merck also provides some important lessons. The agreement between Merck and Neuromed required 11 years of prior CIHR-funded research in Dr. Terry Snutch’s lab at UBC. The Merck deal stands out as a successful collaboration between government and industry. Governments fund the long-term and risky fundamental research and then industry funds the next steps. The agreement also speaks to Canada’s competitiveness as an outstanding source of world-class research and intellectual property.
Outstanding science, risk taking, creativity, time, and successful collaboration between government, universities, industry, and the financial community—these are the necessary ingredients of innovation.
Canada’s investments in research are essential to our future. Only research will lead to more Neuromeds. Only research will provide the evidence that is key to a sustainable and innovative health care system. Only research prevented a melt-down of our health system during the SARS outbreak. Only research will address the growing health and social challenges of Canada’s aging population. Only research will build the foundation of science and talent that will allow Canada to develop an economy based on ideas, and innovation.
Of course, the returns on investment in research go far beyond a narrow economic definition. All of the major challenges facing the planet today—HIV/AIDS, global warming, human health and environmental degradation, cancer, drug addiction, and mental health—all of these and many more require research for their solution. Scientific research is simply the best way humanity has come up with to solve complex problems.
For Canada to be successful, we must be bold, we must build on excellence and on our scientific strengths, we must accept risk and we must be patient. Our ability to compete and to collaborate in a world shaped increasingly by science and innovation will depend critically on our track record of creating new science and harnessing it to solve humanity’s problems.
Funding in Action
By Heather Blumenthal
In March 2006, Neuromed Pharmaceuticals, a British Columbia-based company formed in 1995, signed a record $475 million US deal with Merck, Inc.—the largest-ever licensing agreement in Canadian history. The agreement will help Neuromed further develop an experimental drug to relieve chronic pain.
The story started 17 years ago, when Dr. Terrance Snutch began the research that led to the Merck deal.
What followed is a textbook example of the long-term nature of research, the importance of sustained support for basic research, and the huge payoff—in both health and economic terms—when it is successful.
Dr. Snutch is a Professor in the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia and the founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Neuromed. His research focus is on calcium channels—the transmembrane channels that transport calcium in and out of the brain’s one hundred billion nerve cells, triggering electrical and chemical signals in the process.
Calcium acts as a messenger between the neurons that control skeletal, heart and smooth muscle contraction, hormone secretion, and all electrical signaling in the central nervous system. But things start going wrong when too much calcium enters cells.
“We know that if you can block some of the calcium going into cells, then you can alleviate the symptoms of a large number of disorders,” says Dr. Snutch.
The experimental medication that is the basis of the licensing agreement blocks one particular calcium channel, the N-type, which is responsible for releasing neurotransmitters in the spinal cord and is associated with feeling pain. The drug, NMED-160, specifically blocks the N-type calcium protein, thus treating chronic and neuropathic pain (pain with no apparent physical cause). The potential benefits are huge.
“There are no drugs that adequately treat chronic or neuropathic pain. You have the opiates, like morphine, but they have huge problems. You can’t give them to chronic pain sufferers because of the addiction, tolerance and other side effects,” says Dr. Snutch. “The other drugs that are around, they just don’t work very well for severe chronic pain. The N-type channel comes out of a basic science research program and offers a new therapeutic strategy.”
All of Dr. Snutch’s research on calcium channels has been funded through CIHR. Dr. Snutch has praise for CIHR’s commercialization strategy and its ability to help hone a discovery, develop the proof of concept and decide on the appropriate route for commercialization.
Commercialization, Dr. Snutch points out, is the end phase of a long research process. When he and his lab started looking at calcium channels, they weren’t thinking about applications—they just thought it looked interesting physiologically.
“There’s a whole lot of basic research that went into cloning the N-type channel, finding out where it’s localized in the nervous system, showing that it’s in the proper spot in the nervous system to contribute to pain signaling, defining how it mediates pain transmission, and then dissecting the molecular components of how the channel couples through opiate receptors. Without all of that basic science, there would have been no rationale to develop a drug that blocked (the N-type channel).”
That being said, Dr. Snutch points out that not every good idea is a basis for a billion dollar company, and that part of the challenge is to figure out the right way to go about commercializing discoveries. “You really have to think about what the market opportunity is for each of these potential targets and work backwards,” Dr. Snutch says.
Today, Dr. Snutch’s work on calcium channels holds out hope not only for chronic pain sufferers but also, potentially, for people with epilepsy, hypertension, and mood disorders, other areas where his work has shown promise.
“The potential for these markets and the treatment of unmet patient needs is tremendous,” Dr. Snutch says. “There’s going to be a lot more good news out of this story.”