Profs to head health institutes

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McGill Reporter
December 7, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 07
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > December 7, 2000 > Profs to head health institutes

Profs to head health institutes

| On Tuesday, federal health minister Allan Rock introduced the media to 13 researchers who will play major roles in defining the future of Canada's newest and biggest granting agency, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Two of those 13 individuals had familiar faces: biochemistry professor Philip Branton and psychiatry professor Rémi Quirion.

The successor to the now defunct Medical Research Council of Canada, the CIHR, somewhat like the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., is a series of institutes targeted to specific areas of research while operating in a multidisciplinary manner.

Armed with $402 million in funding this year and $533 million for the following year, the CIHR will be the leading player in determining the kind of health-oriented research that will take place in this country.

The CIHR will be composed of 13 institutes devoted to such themes as aboriginal peoples' health, genetics, gender and health, healthy aging and nutrition, metabolism and diabetes. Each will have a scientific director responsible for setting the institutes on course.

Branton will serve as the scientific director for the Institute of Cancer Research, while Quirion will lead the Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction.

Branton and Quirion will both remain at McGill as they take on their new roles.

"The first couple of years are probably going to be really hairy," predicts Branton. "It's a tall order to start something like this virtually from scratch."

As scientific director, Branton will make decisions about "the new areas where research needs to be done," while paying heed to the work already being supported by other players such as the Canadian Cancer Society and provincial agencies.

"I don't want to reinvent the wheel for cancer. The idea is to play a coordinating role so we don't have overlapping or competing projects."

Branton believes his institute has an opportunity to help deal a powerful blow against cancer in the years to come.

"I think during the next five to 10 years, we're going to see a revolution in medicine, especially with cancer. We will see an effective end to many forms of cancer. Or, if not an end, then at least effective techniques for controlling it.

"Thanks to developments in molecular biology and genetics, there are a number of drugs in the pipeline with enormous potential."

Recent research has shed much light on how cancer takes root at the molecular level and how cancer can affect individuals very differently.

"We're close to the era of personalized medicine. We won't be talking about lung cancer per se anymore; there will be 15 types of lung cancer and each will have its own treatment.

"One of the big pushes that I see is facilitating this kind of drug development, by supporting more clinical trials perhaps."

The chair of his department for 10 years, Branton is a respected scientist with expertise in viruses, tumour suppressors and applied work on new cancer therapies. He is also the co-founder of GeminiX Biotechnologies Inc.

Quirion, for his part, is scientific director of the Douglas Hospital Research Centre and the head of a provincial network on mental health supported by the Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec. He already has a fair amount of experience in stitching together research teams. His own research track record is both extensive (over 500 papers and articles) and varied (dealing with Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and drug dependence, among other topics).

"The challenge for [the Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction] will be to bring these three communities together," says Quirion.

"A lot of scientists are used to working in their own little world. They might think, 'I'm interested in basic neuroscience, why should I worry about schizophrenia?'

"It's ultimately the same agenda. We all want to have a better understanding of how the brain works and how mind-related diseases operate. Once we have that understanding, we can do a better job of treating these illnesses through better social support, drugs or psychology."

When the Douglas restructured its approach to building research programs a few years ago, Quirion says it made a point of ensuring that basic scientists, clinicians, social workers, medical anthropologists and others came together on a regular basis.

"We recruited all these people and put them in the same building where they could interact. They began to learn each other's language and at the end of the day, they saw the advantages for patient care in collaborating with one another."

He also wants to promote teamwork among researchers from different regions.

"If we look at something like suicide among young adults, that's a major issue. How can we tackle that on a national basis instead of each of us dealing with it in our own little corner?"

All 13 scientific directors will be guided by advice from the advisory boards of their respective institutes. The members of those boards will be appointed later this month and will be drawn from the research community, voluntary sector organizations, patient groups, and the public and private sectors. The institutes will begin to develop strategic plans early in the new year and start implementing them in April 2001.

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