January 19, 2011 2:45 pm

Loss of medical research fund ‘potentially catastrophic’: U of C researchers

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CALGARY – Medical researchers at the University of Calgary are calling the elimination of an internationally renowned grant program "potentially catastrophic" to the future of research and medical care in the province.

The Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, established as a $1-billion endowment fund by former premiers Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein, has been abolished by the provincial Tories, putting the salaries and positions of some 250 elite medical researchers and physicians in jeopardy.

"The clinical care that we have in the province today is to a great extent thanks to the heritage foundation," said Dr. Quentin Pittman, professor in the faculty of medicine at U of C, and education director for the Hotchkiss Brain Institute."But now there’s just a lot of uncertainty. They say they’ll replace it, but we don’t know with what. It’s just like when they blew up the General Hospital, they said they’d replace it and we’re still waiting."

The AHFMR was created by Premier Lougheed in 1978 through a $300-million fund. Years later Premier Klein added another $500 million, building on what is now a $1-billion endowment. Through interest, the fund pays $75 million annually in grants and salaries to elite medical researchers from across the globe.

The program has brought hundreds of talented doctors to the province, Pittman argues, allowing many to conduct research while they work as clinicians, emergency room doctors or other specialists. The result is strong research and a high level of care to Alberta patients.

"The program has been phenomenal in terms of recruiting," Pittman said. "These doctors do both research and practice which benefits patients hugely.

"Now there is all this uncertainty. There are no new applicants and people are being recruited away."

But provincial officials say they are in the process of strategizing how best to replace the program, which they say will still spend up to $75 million annually on medical research.

Jacques Magnan is chief executive officer for Alberta Innovates, a provincial umbrella group which supports research in several fields including health research similar to AHFMR.

He concedes the new program will provide shorter-term operating grants that will no longer offer full-time salaries to doctors.

But the program will still look to fund high-quality research, and provide grants under a well-scrutinized peer-review process.

"There’s anxiety around this as there would be any change.

"But we’re having discussions with the research community, the health system, the private sector and not-for-profit agencies to create new funding strategies."

But Dr. James McGhee, a biochemistry professor who’s done research in molecular biology, says the new strategy places too much control into the hands of the province and not enough in the medical community.

In a letter to the editor, McGhee, along with two other U of C professors, say the province told researchers AHFMR funding was pulled because it did not produce research that was able to "get off the shelf" and "create wealth."

"One hundred years ago," the letter reads, "a similar logic would have suspended research into planes, trains and automobiles and focused instead on streamlining the production of horseshoes."

McGhee fears the province will just "follow things that they think the public is interested in but may not be that important."

Professors at the University of Alberta have raised similar concerns in the last month, saying the new strategy will shift dollars away from salaries into short-term projects and applied research with potential for commercialization.

Eva Ferguson

With files from the Edmonton Journal

Calgary Herald

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