Funding health research isn't for scientists, its for patients

Posted: 11-29-2017

Lessons from a Calgary kitchen floor

Funding health research isn’t for scientists, it’s for patients

By Yves Savoie (Published in the Hill Times on November 29, 2017)

Donna Sharman learned a vital lesson when she collapsed on her kitchen floor in Calgary four years ago. It was this: health research saves lives, including hers.

Then 59, she hit the floor without warning because of a blood clot in her brain – causing a stroke. That was the unlucky part of her day. Her luck turned when she was taken quickly to the Foothills Medical Centre.

Doctors there were conducting important research on an innovative way to treat people who have a more severe stroke like Donna. A CT scan showed she was an ideal candidate for this novel procedure. It involved the stroke team acting quickly to thread a special catheter through a vessel in her groin, through her blood vessels directly to the blood clot in her brain where the doctors were able to quickly capture and remove it. That restored the crucial blood flow to the rest of her brain and restored her life – without disability.

The results of that international research project, led by the University of Calgary Hotchkiss Brain Institute, were published inThe New England Journal of Medicinein 2015. The success of their new procedure is now changing stroke treatment around the world. Sometimes instead of using drugs to break up clots, they can be removed.

“I would not be here if that research was not being done when I had my stroke,” Donna Sharman says today. “It saved my life, or at minimum prevented me from having a life with a major disability. It’s now saving countless others.”

Canada’s health charities invest hundreds of millions in research every year. This includes investments into the study that saved Donna Sharman. Our investments help turn cutting edge discoveries into life-changing treatments – but we can’t do it alone. We need researchers pushing the frontiers of knowledge to uncover new opportunities to help save and improve people’s lives. For example, the removal of a blood clot from a brain is a remarkable achievement that builds on earlier fundamental research such as the molecular changes associated with acute stroke. The path between basic research and removing a blood clot may not be obvious or quick, but it is real and important.

This very real impact of fundamental science and research on patients needs to be kept in mind as we consider the state of fundamental science and research in Canada. We are lagging, and patients will end up suffering unless we act. Fortunately, however, we have the blueprint for what needs to be done.

Earlier this year, a panel led by Dr. David Naylor, former president of the University of Toronto, issued its final report on the federal government’s role in supporting fundamental science in Canada. The report, titledInvesting in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research, laid out a multi-year strategy that includes greater emphasis on independent investigator-led projects, better coordination between the four core research funding agencies and the creation of an oversight body.

The panel also called for “major” reinvestments that would see annual federal spending on research-related activities increase by an average of nine per cent over four years, from approximately $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion. Such an increase would represent 0.4 per cent of the federal government’s annual budget, the report noted. The financial investment is the single most important recommendation in the report.

Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan outlined her vision to strengthen science in Canada at the Canadian Science Policy Conference on November 2, one which lays the foundation for a sustainable research sector. This announcement did not provide details on research funding levels ‒ a key recommendation in Dr. Naylor’s report. To bring this multi-year plan to life, Canada requires long-term sustainable funding. 

Minister Duncan challenged the research community to tell the story of how science teaches us to see a new world. Donna’s remarkable story is one piece of that tale. If we are to bolster our innovation ecosystem and enact a bold path forward in driving important advances that will save lives and better quality of life for patients like Donna, it is essential that we restore funding for health research in Canada.

As the federal government now considers investments it might make in next spring’s 2018 budget, it is vital for it to remember and implement these important recommendations to revitalize fundamental health and scientific research in Canada. Though important for its own sake, such government investments have the further benefit of nurturing the entire research ecosystem in Canada which is also supported to important degrees by private companies, universities and Canada’s health charities.

As with any ecosystem, the foundations for scientific research must be strong in order for the system to bear fruit – most importantly in benefit for patients such as Donna Sharman. By acting on the Naylor report recommendations the federal government will not just bolster research, it will save Canadians’ lives.


Yves Savoie is CEO of Heart & Stroke, a member of the Health Charities Coalition of Canada. Donna Sharman continues to be in good health and contributes her experience and time to patient programs aimed at improving the healthcare system.

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