U of G researchers say the inauguration of the new Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) bodes well for a variety of long-standing health-related research programs at Guelph.
Last month, six U of G scientists received a total of $1.7 million for health research, announced last month in Alberta by Health Minister Allan Rock and CIHR president Alan Bernstein and in Guelph by Guelph-Wellington MP Brenda Chamberlain.
The new operating and equipment grants support projects ranging from bacterial infection to genetics in four departments in the Ontario Veterinary College, the College of Biological Science and the College of Physical and Engineering Science. The following projects received support:
- "Molecular Mechanisms of Mammalian Homologous Recombination," Prof. Mark Baker, Pathobiology, $489,865 over five years;
- "Cellular Aging and Senescence During Early Mammalian Development," Prof. Allan King, Biomedical Sciences, $208,487 over three years;
- "Mechanisms of Hepatocyte LRP Gene Regulation," Prof. Jonathan Lamarre, Biomedical Sciences, $208,487 over three years;
- "Structure, Function and Catalytic Mechanism of Pseudomonas aeruginosa Exotoxin A," Prof. Rod Merrill, Chemistry and Biochemistry, $400,500 over five years;
- "Structural Mechanism of Osmosensing by Osmosensor and Osmoregulatory Transporter ProP of Escherichia coli, Prof. Janet Wood, Microbiology, $295,805 over three years; and
- "Capillary Electrophoresis Equipment," Prof. Joe Lam, Microbiology, $118,129 for one year.
In all, 24 U of G researchers currently receive CIHR funding, including operating and equipment grants, post-doctoral fellowships and doctoral research awards, one senior investigator award and Burroughs Wellcome Fund student research awards. The funding supports projects in a range of areas, including bacterial and viral infections, DNA repair, childhood injuries, aging and nutrition.
"Across campus, there are a large number of research programs that have a major impact on the health and well-being of Canadians," says Prof. Ross Hallett, assistant vice-president (research infrastructure programs). "It is extremely gratifying to note that the importance of these programs is being recognized by CIHR through these awards."
The new funding is part of a $194-million investment in research initiatives involving close to 650 researchers across Canada at universities and hospitals, in government and in the voluntary health sector. That amount included a total of almost $75.8 million in grants and awards for research projects in Ontario.
Last month's announcement follows the award of a CIHR chair worth more than $346,000 this summer to Prof. Heather Keller, Family Relations and Applied Nutrition (see story above).
Calling CIHR a "highly innovative and integrative approach to health research," Rock announced the creation of the new agency June 7. (Ottawa had announced its intention to replace the Medical Research Council with the CIHR in the 1999 federal budget.) "Thematic institutes linking the findings and studies of researchers from coast to coast will allow us to focus on research challenges and opportunities relevant to all Canadians," Rock said in a news release.
The new agency is intended to bring together researchers from various disciplines in projects to create knowledge, develop more effective health services and products, strengthen the country's health-care system and ultimately improve the health of Canadians.
Those researchers are expected to work in 13 new "virtual" institutes under four main research themes: biomedical, clinical, health systems and services, and population health. CIHR's budget for 2000/2001 will be $402 million, rising to $533 million the following year.
"The concept of virtual institutes is appealing," says Baker, who holds a cross-appointment in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. "It provides for flexibility and avoids the high cost of building and maintaining 'bricks and mortar' institutes."
He says the new agency will be more flexible than MRC and will involve a wider range of investigators in more large-scale projects from policy issues and ethics to basic science. Baker also says the new agency will be more visible than its predecessor and better able to explain the importance of health research to Canadians.
Lamarre echoes those comments, adding that CIHR will probably attract more Guelph researchers to apply for funding who might have been reluctant to approach its more medically oriented predecessor agency.
"Although the boundaries are not yet completely defined, the funding expansion into areas that might include some aspects of food safety, population/ecosystem health and nutrition/nutraceuticals is very promising, given our recognized strengths in these fields," he says.
Wood says she's pleased to see a more integrated approach to federal support for health-care research. Her funding will allow her to join forces with a colleague at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children in studying how cells sense environmental changes and control their water content.
Wood's lab was the first to discover a protein in the cell membrane of E. coli that allows the bacterium to sense osmotic pressure changes in its environment.
"I don't believe we should support laboratory-based biomedical research to the exclusion of research on health-care delivery that is based in other disciplines, such as the social sciences," she says.
Lam notes that the immediate impact of the change is the increase in the level of funding. He received only 90 cents less than the amount that he and fellow microbiologist Prof. Chris Whitfield had requested in their application for a state-of-the-art capillary electrophoresis equipment.
"The funding increase is a welcome sight and a step to a more realistic level that would allow Canadian researchers to remain competitive as compared with our colleagues in other countries," says Lam. "But we must realize that the current funding level is still far behind those of the United States' National Institutes of Health grants and the United Kingdom's Wellcome Trust grants, just to name a few."
Earlier this year, Whitfield was one of 15 Canadian researchers to receive a Senior Scientist Award from MRC (the award is now administered by CIHR), worth $350,000 over five years for his studies of disease-causing bacteria.
Although he says it's too early to determine how well the new health institutes will operate or whether CIHR will receive stable long-term funding, he's encouraged by the agency's more inclusive approach toward broader health concerns and by its increased focus on health research results.
"The institutes themselves are supposed to provide a mechanism and forum to link and support researchers to foster interdisciplinary research," says Whitfield. "This is always a positive element. The role of the institutes in focusing research priorities is less clear. I think it is designed to mobilize effort and funding in strategic areas, and this is good, but I don't know what impact this will have on funding of areas viewed to have 'lower priority.'"
President Mordechai Rozanski says U of G "salutes the federal government for its forward-thinking approach in establishing the CIHR and making this latest investment in health research, and we hope to see this financial support extended across an even wider range of disciplines in the future, including the social sciences."
Rozanski congratulates the faculty, staff and students involved in the CIHR-funded projects. "Their success in attracting research support has made Guelph the second-most research-intensive university in Canada, and the support will allow us to continue our leadership role in advancing research in health and well-being."