What Really Matters

The Great White North: Ontario’s North as a Burgeoning Economic Driver

The Catalyst shines a light on two CAHO hospitals in Ontario’s north. With funding, these two facilities and their research arms are driving northern development, creating jobs, attracting global experts and showing a healthy return on investment.

Something major is happening in northern Ontario, and it’s changing the landscape of health research in Ontario. With investment, two CAHO hospitals ‒ Sudbury’s Health Sciences North (HSN) and Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre (TBRHSC) ‒ are driving the northern economy, employing many in highly skilled jobs, attracting top research talent and showing a healthy return on provincial backing. These benefits also translate to improving health outcomes and quality of life for patients.

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HSN Partners with Industry to Create New Research Hub

Since its inception in 2012 the research arm of HSN, the Advanced Medical Research Institute of Canada (AMRIC), has attracted world-class researchers and leading international talent to Sudbury. It has also forged new partnerships that have benefited the region. In 2013, AMRIC partnered with Sweden-based Elekta, a world-leading company in health technology, to establish a new health research facility. Together, these two created the new MOSAIQ® oncology information system research and development centre at AMRIC.

“The establishment of the centre is a perfect example of how AMRIC is forging key partnerships to create a health care research hub in Sudbury,” said Dr. Francisco Diaz-Mitoma, CEO and Scientific Director of AMRIC. “A partnership with a world leader like Elekta is creating jobs in our community, raising the international profile and reputation of AMRIC and our city, and enhancing patient care,” he added.

AMRIC CEO Dr. Francisco Diaz-Mitoma sees the partnership with Elekta as key to creating a research hub in Sudbury. Photograph courtesy of Northern Life.

There’s no doubt that HSN and AMRIC have scored a major victory for the region. “I am proud that the strong knowledge-based economy of northern Ontario attracted Elekta to Sudbury as a destination for investment,” said the Honourable Michael Gravelle, Minister of Northern Development and Mines.

“AMRIC is such an important engine for the northern economy,” added Rick Bartolucci, Liberal MPP for the Sudbury Riding.

Six jobs were created initially, with six to 10 more positions expected in the next year of operation.

Test Expected to Improve Survival and Quality of Life for Patients with Breast Cancer

At HSN and AMRIC, world-class research with global implications is being undertaken. This research holds the prospect of dramatically improving health outcomes. For example, HSN is currently developing a test, the RNA Disruption Assay™ (RDA™), to predict which patients with breast cancer will best respond to chemotherapy and live cancer-free for a longer period of time following treatment.

Dr. Amadeo Parissenti, who holds appointments at Laurentian University, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and AMRIC, is leading this research. In a recent clinical trial, 85 breast cancer patients were given the RDA™ test midway through their chemo treatment, and then tracked following the completion of their chemotherapy.

Before this test, the effectiveness of chemo was typically measured after the treatment was complete. However, with RDA, one can determine early in treatment whether or not the chemo is working. Patients with non-responding tumours could then be spared the side effects of the ineffective regimen and switch to a different treatment.

“We can potentially improve both their survival rates and quality of life,” Parissenti explained. “This new test could become the gold standard for managing patient care,” he added.

“This is a prime example of the value and potential of developing the health research sector in Greater Sudbury,” said Diaz-Mitoma.

This work was funded, from the discovery phase until now, by the Ontario Centres of Excellence, the Northern Cancer Foundation, the Ontario Genomics Institute, MaRS Excite, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund and others. Sudbury’s Laurentian University licensed the technology behind RDATM .

Thunder Bay Driving a Knowledge-Based Economy

A thousand kilometers west of Sudbury, Thunder Bay tells a similar story of how investment is fuelling a thriving knowledge based economy. “Our investments are helping advance very significant research in Thunder Bay that will enhance the quality of life for residents in our region. [This investment] will also help create good jobs in our community,” said Bill Mauro, MPP for Thunder Bay-Atikokan.

TBRRI’s new cyclotron is a perfect example of how such investment sees a healthy return. (Cyclotrons are particle accelerators that create vital medical isotopes used in imaging for cancer treatment.) This new cyclotron will support local research helping find new ways of detecting and treating disease as well as guiding the development of new therapies by supplying isotopes to local researchers. This is especially crucial since there have been serious shortages in recent years (2007 and 2009) related to unscheduled closures of the Chalk River National Research Universal Reactor, a facility that is slated for closure in 2016.

Last summer, through the NOHFC, the Ontario government awarded TBRRI an additional $4 million towards the cyclotron and research funding. This represents an estimated $12 million in economic activity for Thunder Bay and northwestern Ontario. The cyclotron will also create 29 highly skilled jobs, and attract students to Thunder Bay to work and study under TBRRI scientists. The cyclotron facility ensures that educated, highly skilled individuals are trained, developed, and retained in northwestern Ontario.

“Our government is committed to making smart investments to improve health care and create jobs in northern Ontario,” said Premier Kathleen Wynne. “I am pleased that this support will help the Institute perform cutting-edge research that will improve health care while creating jobs.”

Thunder Bay Recruits Heavy Hitters in the Research World

Thunder Bay’s world-class facility attracts world-class talent: Last March, TBRHSC brought home one of the best and brightest stars in obstetrics gynecology (OB/GYN). Rhodes Scholar Dr. Naana Jumah, a graduate from both Oxford and Harvard Universities, returned to the city where she was raised to further her OB/GYN work at TBRRI as a Clinician Researcher.

“[This recruit] goes to show that northwestern Ontario is solidifying itself as a premier destination for top-tier scientific talent,” said Dr. Roxanne Deslauriers, Scientific Director for TBRRI.

Dr Jumah
Dr. Jumah with colleague Dr. Laura Curiel, Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute. Photograph courtesy of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.

At TBRRI, Jumah is part of a team advancing an innovative research program in the non-invasive treatment of uterine fibroids using High-Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU). The HIFU procedure is quick, painless and non-invasive ‒ an alternative to surgery, which is longer, more expensive and requires far longer recovery time.

Benefits for patients, such as shorter recovery time and less risk of complications, speak to quality of life for patients, as well as reduced costs to the health care system. It is estimated that HIFU could save Ontario’s health care system over $35 million annually and the Canadian health care system $90 million per year. Realizing these benefits, the Ontario Research Fund invested $3.5 million in the research supporting HIFU in 2008.

Clearly HSN and TBRHSC are changing the face of Ontario’s north, transforming the region into a major research hub with a diversified economy ‒ one investment, one facility, one collaboration, and one patient at a time.