Health research needs funds: Smith

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

Without public funding Canada will not be able to exploit the scientific and medical advances of the next century, says Nobel Prize winner and Prof. Emeritus Michael Smith.

Smith has joined a nation-wide public campaign, Health Research Awareness Week, which is asking the federal government to provide more funding for health research.

"Discoveries and investors will go to countries with well-funded programs and skilled researchers will go with them," says Smith.

He and hundreds of Canadian health researchers, practitioners and educators will be participating in the campaign which runs Oct.26 - 30 and is organized by the Association of Canadian Teaching Hospitals.

The campaign aims to increase the public's awareness of the benefits of health research and to encourage at least 200,000 people to write to the ministers of Health, Industry and Finance as well as their local members of Parliament in support of increased federal funding for health research.

The campaign's goal is to have the federal government dedicate one per cent of the $76 billion spent on health care annually to health research.

"There's a vital link between the quality of research in a community and its health care," says Smith. "Not only do the researchers bring their own discoveries to the community but also their awareness of advances worldwide. Research keeps the health-care system up-to-date."

Smith notes that the discovery of insulin, the drug AZT used to treat AIDS around the world, the anti-cancer drugs used to treat leukemia in children and identification of genes associated with inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis are all the result of Canadian health research.

Canadians are paying a price for the chronic underfunding of health research, he says.

"We're losing more than knowledge," says Smith. "Canada is also losing jobs in the biotechnology sector and its share of the world biotechnology market at a time when we urgently need to diversify our economy."

Smith won the Nobel Prize for his work in reprogramming the genetic codes found in DNA, the substance that provides instruction for the growth and development of any organism.

He is the director of the Genome Sequence Centre, the first research centre in Canada devoted to decoding human genes.

The decoded information is like a catalogue of building blocks. The next step is to understand what those blocks do and how to rebuild or modify them. That knowledge could lead to cures for diseases caused by mutated genes.

The centre is located at the BC Cancer Research Centre.

Smith says he feels fortunate that the BC Cancer Agency funds the centre because Canada has virtually stopped its funding of the Human Genome project. The project is an international effort to identify all the genes in the body.

"We need about a tenfold increase in funding for genomics to make us competitive with other countries," he says.

Smith points out that Canada spends less on health research than almost every other industrialized country -- about $10.45 per capita annually according to data from Statistics Canada. The U.S. spends about five times that amount according to the National Institutes of Health.

"Health research funding yields a national benefit," says Smith. "I can't think of a more sensible thing to invest in."

Smith and business developer Milton Wong, chair of HSBC Asset Management Canada Ltd., will discuss the economic impact of health research at a Board of Trade breakfast on Oct. 27 as part of Health Research Awareness Week.

Health research information will be displayed in the lobby of the UBC's Woodward Instructional Resources Centre from Oct. 26-30.

Prepaid pre-addressed postcards asking the federal government for more funding for health care research will be available there as well as from the office of UBC's vice-president, Research, in the Old Administration Building.