Research hospitals play a leading role in making Ontario healthier, wealthier and smarter. To demonstrate the world-class hospital-based research happening across our province, we took a field trip to Sudbury, where researchers at the Health Sciences North Research Institute are improving the health of northerners, growing the economy of Greater Sudbury, and cementing their reputation as an emerging centre of health care research.
This blog post features some of the highlights of our field trip – but we also live tweeted every minute! To take the full live-tweeted tour, scroll through our Storify story here.
STOP 1: Grand opening of the Walford research facility
Greater Sudbury is committed to health research, recognizing its value for the community and the local economy. This fact was underscored as we kicked off our HWS Field Trip at the grand opening of a new research laboratory, an expansion of Health Sciences North Research Institute (HSNRI) current space.
A large crowd of more than 80 people came out to support and celebrate this milestone of Sudbury’s health research enterprise. The diverse audience included Mayor Brian Bigger, local MPs Marc Serre and Paul Lefebvre, local MPPs Glenn Thibeault and France Gelinas, members of the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, local business representatives, researchers, patients, community members, and local media outlets.
At the Health Sciences North Research Institute, “research is patient care”. /// Dr. Janet McElhaney, Scientific Director of HSNRI, leads a tour of the new Walford research facility.
The new Walford site – a repurposed, red-brick elementary school – has been transformed into a modern, state-of-the-art medical research facility for HSNRI. It will provide researchers with an additional 14,000 square feet of research and laboratory space, helping to attract more bright scientific minds to the area.
Research champions and guest speakers from the Walford site grand opening, (L-R): Dr. Janet McElhaney, Vice President of Research and Scientific Director, HSNRI, Nicole Everest, Board Chair, HSNRI, MP Marc Serré, MP Paul Lefebvre, Karen Michell, former Executive Director, CAHO, Minister of Energy, Glenn Thibeault, Paulette Lalancette, Co-Chair of Northeast Cancer Centre Patient & Family Advisory Committee, Mayor Brian Bigger, City of Greater Sudbury and Greater Sudbury Development Corporation, Dr. Denis Roy, former President and CEO, HSNRI
There were nine guest speakers at the facility’s grand opening, including outgoing CEO of Health Sciences North and HSNRI, Dr. Denis Roy.
“When I arrived here in 2010, I spoke of Sudbury and HSN having the potential to become the ‘Harvard of the North’ when it comes to the academic health sciences,” said Dr. Roy. “It’s already happening. Since the time HSNRI was established five years ago, it’s grown from a team of 36 people to 90. This new facility will help HSNRI to continue attracting world-class talent, who see Sudbury as a viable place to do leading-edge work.”
Vice President of Research and Scientific Director of HSNRI, Dr. Janet McElhaney, also highlighted some of the current research underway, including flu and nicotine vaccines, new models of care for frail seniors, and more. “This is research being done in the north, by northerners, for the people of the north, with world implications,” said Dr. McElhaney.
“Research saves lives. Research makes life better” – Dr. Denis Roy /// “Health research allows patients to dream about the future.” – Paulette Lalancette.
Paulette Lalancette, Patient Advisor and co-chair of Northeast Cancer Centre Patient and Family Advisory Council, also shared her story. Paulette was diagnosed with stage 4 malignant melanoma in 2009, when her son was just four years old. With no further treatment options available to her, she was provided comfort measures. Now eleven years later with her cancer in remission, Paulette has become a strong cancer research champion in Ontario’s north, recognizing its value in bringing hope to families like hers. “Research is monumental and allows me to dream of the future,” said Paulette.
Read Paulette’s blog post about her experience and perspective on the value of research.
STOP 2: Labs at the Ramsey Lake Health Centre
After the Walford Site grand opening, we spent the afternoon meeting scientists and learning about how their research is making a difference for the community.
Viruses, Antimicrobial Resistance and Lessons from Nature
We met Dr. Reza Nokhbeh, who joined the Health Sciences North Research Institute in 2012. Dr. Nokhbeh’s research is focused on developing alternative treatments that use bacteriophages – a type of virus that infects and attacks other bacteria (in Greek, literally, to devour bacteria). Medicine is facing a growing problem of antimicrobial resistance, where bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics. On top of that, antibiotics typically act as a blanket treatment rather than a targeted treatment, attacking all of our bacteria, whether it’s good or bad for our immune systems. Dr. Nokhbeh’s big question is, how can we fight harmful bacteria while protecting our good bacteria?
“Nature knows much more than us,” explained Dr. Nokhbeh. “How can we learn from nature to improve care?” His team is working on developing therapies that use the “phage” viruses to target and infect only the harmful bacteria. The team is starting to see success in the treatment of acne and other bacterial infections such as C. difficile.
Real-Time Personalized Medicine for Chemotherapy Management
When Dr. Amadeo Parissenti first began conducting cancer research, he was surprised at the number of patients who were not benefitting from chemotherapy. “Getting treatment right is critical,” explained Dr. Parissenti. “The harsh conditions of chemotherapy can actually train a tumour to become resistant. That means that if the chemo isn’t working, the cancer can actually become harder to treat with other methods.”
Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter: Dr. Amadeo Parissenti (right) used his research evidence to create a smarter intervention for chemotherapy, and is bringing it to market with HSNRI spin-off company, Rna Diagnostics.
He set out to develop a tool that could determine the effectiveness of chemotherapy for individual patients – in real time. Dr. Parissenti launched a spin-off company to bring his new tool, the Rna Distruption Assay™, to market. This tool provides physicians and patients a real-time evaluation of how patients are responding to chemotherapy. If it’s working, the physician and patient can continue with confidence. If it isn’t, they work together to consider alternate therapies. It’s marrying personalized medicine with chemotherapy management.
“For patients, this means avoiding harmful side effects of chemotherapy that isn’t treating the cancer,” said Dr. Parissenti. “It also means that patients have a new opportunity to improve outcomes earlier on by switching to a more effective treatment.”
The RDA™ tool is undergoing validation testing in a recently launched international clinical trial, involving more than 500 patients with invasive breast cancer, scheduled to receive neoadjuvant chemotherapy, in 40 centers across North America and Europe.
STOP 2: Labs at the Walford Research Facility
Marijuana Research: Generating Evidence for Regulations and Policy
With marijuana legalization on the horizon in Canada, it is important to understand the potential impact of smoking marijuana, including lung cancer risk – the leading cause of cancer-related death in Canada. Dr. Leslie Sutherland is researching cannabis inhalation to see how it interacts with human lung cells and determine the level of harm.
“We are comparing the early changes that occur in lung cells exposed to tobacco versus cannabis,” explained Dr. Sutherland. “Right now, evidence in the literature suggests that those who smoke both cannabis and tobacco are at a higher risk for lung cancer than those who smoke only tobacco. We are trying to identify the molecular changes that drive this correlation.” Depending on the research findings, Dr. Sutherland hopes that her cannabis smoke exposure research will help inform medicinal marijuana prescription guidelines for physicians.
These findings could have a big impact on marijuana policy decisions, and Dr. Sutherland expects to publish the results of her research later in 2017.
Understanding the Interaction of Traditional Medicine and Cancer Treatment
Many cancer patients in Northern Ontario take natural products as part of their effort to fight cancer. Having lived and worked in Sudbury for over 20 years, Dr. Robert Lafrenie’s research on natural or traditional therapies for cancer is informed by his experience working with the members of the Indigenous community.
Dr. Robert Lafrenie and his team are improving care for the Greater Sudbury community by studying the interactions between traditional medicines and cancer treatments including chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
“A lot of patients are using natural products or traditional medicines to either bolster standard cancer treatments or to minimize the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy,” explained Dr. Lafrenie. “While this can be a benefit, it’s important to understand how those medicines might interaction with standard cancer treatment.”
Dr. Lafrenie’s team is investigating how compounds extracted from various plants used in traditional medicine might help treat cancer without producing unwanted side effects or negatively interact with other cancer therapies. With the findings from his research, Dr. Lafrenie hopes to build a guideline for patients and physicians, showing which natural medicines help or harm when interacting with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Research Supporting Regional Needs
At the grand opening of the Walford facility, Mayor Brian Bigger said: “By attracting and retaining top talent in Sudbury, we all benefit from health research discovery and innovation.”
The Sudbury community not only benefits from the research underway at HSNRI, it also informs the questions and supports the discoveries being made by the researchers. HSNRI’s research priorities have been strategically selected based on the health priorities of the region, and include Northern and Indigenous Health, Healthy Aging, Cancer Solutions, Infection and Immunity, and Personalized Medicine. We had the benefit of seeing the progress in these priority areas, and we want to thank our hosts at HSNRI for giving us the opportunity to see, first-hand, that research truly is patient care.
Why does health research matter to us? We know that it generates new discoveries, better care, and greater efficiency all while contributing to our knowledge-based economy. That’s how it makes Ontario healthier, wealthier and smarter today. Investing in research hospitals will help us continue to build a healthier, wealthier, smarter Ontario tomorrow. Discover more health research and patient stories by signing up for our monthly newsletter or joining the #onHWS conversation on Twitter.
Read our other HWS Field Trips here.