While individual BC researchers were highly successful in attracting external research funding, there simply weren’t enough of them for the province to compete effectively.
A diverse coalition representing researchers, universities, health care, and industry, came together to find solutions that could turn the tide. From its discussions emerged a strategy focused on “catalytic” investment in researchers, particularly young scholars.
These investments, focused on individuals rather than large projects, would create the conditions for young researchers to stay in BC and thrive.
Led by Dr. Aubrey J. Tingle, the coalition presented its strategy to the provincial government. The government in turn committed to a $110 million investment that would jumpstart BC’s health research enterprise. To ensure that investment was targeted strategically, the government announced the creation of a new agency, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, in March 2001.
Over the past 15 years, MSFHR has worked with the provincial government to invest more than $330 million in award programs that nurture talent, advance new cures, and respond to health system priorities.
To date, the Foundation has supported more than 1,600 individual researchers and 80 teams, helping to create a vibrant research community that is now recognized worldwide.
In this issue of Spark, we are proud to reflect on the achievements of the past 15 years. These stories illustrate MSFHR’s role in supporting a remarkable transformation of BC’s health research landscape.
Brinkman can draw a clear line from her 2001 MSFHR Scholar Award to the work that helped establish her career as one of BC's leading researchers.
Scholar Awards granted since 2001
Open-source software tools developed in her lab have made it possible to delve into bacterial genomes and create what Brinkman calls “the ultimate high-resolution DNA fingerprint.” This fingerprint enables researchers to track emerging clusters of disease-causing bacteria, leading to faster and more accurate identification and control of outbreaks.
Brinkman’s work has been referenced tens of thousands of times, earning her recognition by Thomson Reuters as one of the world’s most influential scientific minds in 2014. Her lab’s methods have also been used to study environmental contaminants, advancing research into allergy, asthma, and immune diseases.
For Brinkman, a key advantage of MSFHR salary support was the freedom to explore outside-the-box solutions.
It allowed me to go a little bit further in trying to do something innovative that might not be so easily funded by traditional means.Dr. Fiona Brinkman
She also stresses another core benefit: the ability to hire and train outstanding graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, such as Dr. Jennifer Gardy, who completed her PhD in Brinkman’s lab in 2006 with the support of a MSFHR Trainee Award.
of MSFHR-funded Scholars remain in BC
“The key behind a successful lab is getting great students. I can’t emphasize enough how much (MSFHR funding) has helped bring people into my lab who are doing really ground-breaking work.”
Dr. Jennifer Gardy, funded by MSFHR’s Research Trainee Program in 2004 as a PhD student and 2006 as a post-doctoral fellow, has seen first-hand the benefits of investing in young researchers. Gardy credits her trainee awards with bolstering her ability to compete for CIHR funding and creating a “positive feed-forward loop” that laid the foundation for her research career.
“You keep accruing these things on your CV that result in these wonderful positive impacts,” she says. “And the fact you can also use a bit of your money for things like research and travel allowances, going to conferences, building a professional network – all that is huge.”
Fast-forward 10 years and Gardy is now an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and the head of her own lab at the BC Centre for Disease Control. With the support of a 2016 MSFHR Scholar Award, she is studying how genomics can improve our ability to recognize and respond to tuberculosis outbreaks.
trainee awards granted since 2001
“A single whole-genome run can provide all of the same information that you would get from traditional lab analyses, but it does it in days, not weeks, not months,” she says. “And that means we can get the patient diagnosed faster. We can get them on the right treatment faster, and we can get a handle on outbreaks faster.”
Gardy, who completed her PhD at Simon Fraser University under the supervision of MSFHR Scholar Fiona Brinkman, considers herself fortunate to have spent her entire career in BC.
We have an amazing community here, and it’s really thanks to agencies like the Michael Smith Foundation who have invested in homegrown talent, who’ve invested in bringing people to Vancouver and having them stay here and cultivate local talent.Dr. Jennifer Gardy
MSFHR-funded teams and research units attracted a total of
million from five major Canadian funding agencies
For Dr. Martin Gleave and colleagues, a 2004 MSFHR Research Unit Award supported the fledgling Prostate Centre’s Translational Research Initiative for Accelerated Discovery and Development (PC-TRiADD) to build translational programs centred on five research “cores” and attract significant external funding.
PC-TRiADD successfully applied for a $40 million Canada Foundation for Innovation grant that enabled significant expansion of its physical research space and recruitment of new research talent to the local community.
The result has been a remarkable string of outputs, including eight new cancer drugs, three spin-off biotech companies, and a solid foundation for innovative team science in British Columbia.
million invested in team awards between 2002 and 2012
“I think the Michael Smith Foundation focusing on the development of research units helped to stimulate an environment where teams assembled and through that, really enabled translational science,” he says.
The translational pipeline has led to novel drugs like OGX-011, which acts to inhibit production of clusterin, a protein associated with the development of treatment resistance in cancer patients.
To ensure BC researchers have the raw material to excel, MSFHR invested in the development of Population Data BC, one of five technology/methodology platforms funded by the Foundation in 2007.
Population Data BC, commonly known as PopData, is a shared provincial resource that makes multiple linked health care databases available to researchers through a secure channel.
“We wanted to let researchers do research,” says Dr. Kim McGrail, scientific director of PopData. “At that time what was happening was that researchers were spending a lot of time going to individual data stewards and having to link data themselves.”
MSFHR has invested
million in infrastructure programs that contribute to health innovation and change
infrastructure support awards were funded between 2002 and 2015
The PopData model is more efficient for researchers and more transparent for data stewards.
Although the groundwork for PopData was laid in the mid-1990s, MSFHR funding was the catalyst for significant growth, McGrail says. It allowed PopData to expand the breadth of data that was linked and offer its services to a wider range of researchers, including those focused on population health. The platform was also able to transition from UBC governance to a model that includes all of BC’s research-intensive universities.
Another major benefit of MSFHR support has been a focus on education and training, says McGrail.
“We didn’t have that at all prior to the technology/methodology platform competition, and since that time, I think this has become quite an important cornerstone of what we are doing and why we have the support of data stewards,” she says.
“They know that the people who are using these resources have access to training that will make sure they can use the data to produce high quality research.”
One of BCNRI’s greatest contributions has been the development of InspireNet, a virtual platform that has made a real impact in connecting those active and interested in health services research across BC.
InspireNet harnesses online technologies to bring like-minded individuals together. Research teams and health care providers working in one of BCNRI’s priority areas have been able to apply for an “electronic community of practice” to support collaboration among members. Through these communities, InspireNet provides a range of tools, including web-conferencing, discussion forums, blogs, event calendars, document libraries, collaborative wikis, and shared contact lists.
InspireNet’s success has been dependent on the use of virtual technology, which has permitted synchronous and asynchronous communication among people in geographically distant locations.
These electronic communities of practice bring people with similar areas of interest together for research, discussion of best clinical practices, professional education and support, says Dr. Noreen Frisch, InspireNet co-leader.
Since 2009, the InspireNet membership has grown to more than 4,200 researchers, health care providers, policy-makers, educators, and students. The network, now at the end of its grant-funded mandate, is poised to take on a new role as the communications and networking platform of the BC SUPPORT Unit. In this role, InspireNet will help bring together patients, providers, decision-makers, and researchers interested in patient-oriented research.
Through targeted investments in up-and-coming research talent, the Foundation helped to stimulate an immediate increase in BC researchers’ ability to compete on the national and international stages. Within the first five years of MSFHR’s founding, BC was attracting roughly 16 per cent of CIHR grant funding, nearly double the levels of the late 1990s. With 13 per cent of the national population, BC was finally punching above its weight in the life sciences.
"We went from having some of the lowest indicators of our excellence nationally to some of the highest in certain areas,” says Dr. Diane Finegood, MSFHR president & CEO.
It’s taken time, and it’s really important to understand that the outcomes we’re seeing now are due to the investments we made 15 years ago.Dr. Diane Finegood
Among BC’s successes are the development of world-class research hubs focused in areas such as genomics and HIV/AIDS. Finegood also points out that the province’s health services researchers are among the most effective and efficient in the country, as determined by a pan-Canadian CIHR study.
Reflecting on the achievements of the past 15 years, Dr. Aubrey Tingle, MSFHR’s founding president and CEO, is most proud of the career path that has been created for young researchers.
“It’s been a wonderful development of opportunity, and I think it is the most exciting time I can see in my entire career to watch young people and the opportunities that they have today,” he says.
Starting this fall, MSFHR is excited to roll out an expanded suite of funding programs that will ensure BC’s health research community has the support it needs to grow and innovate.
The new programs have been developed following an extensive internal program review, combined with multi-round consultation in all BC regions and discussions with the provincial government to ensure the programs support government priorities.
“It’s an exciting time at Michael Smith,” says Finegood. “We have a strong strategic plan in place, which reflects our mandate to support and be responsive to the health system.”
The new funding programs will diversify MSFHR’s support by offering funds for health policy fellowships, knowledge translation, research by health professionals, and the translation of research findings into commercial applications and products.
In addition, MSFHR will offer its Scholar and Research Trainee Programs on an annual basis beginning in fall 2016.
To learn more, visit: www.msfhr.org/funding/funding-programs