Ontario seeks centre stage for cancer research with creation of new institute

Guest Contributor
April 16, 2003

Ontario Budget

The Cancer Research Institute of Ontario (CRIO) has captured the Ontario Budget’s largest single investment related to R&D and innovation. With a budget of $1 billion over 10 years, it is designed to propel Ontario into the world-leading ranks for cancer research and treatment and complements a previous $100-million commitment for an Ontario Cancer Research Network (OCRN).

The concept for CRIO will be fleshed out by Dr Calvin Stiller, chair of the Ontario R&D Challenge Fund (CF) and Dr Bette Stephenson, chair of the Ontario Innovation Trust. Their work will build upon a comprehensive study and report, completed by a working group led by Dr George Connell, former president of the Univ of Toronto. Stiller and Stephenson will strike a committee and consult broadly on how CRIO will interact with other provincial cancer institutes and research centres before reporting back to government with a series of recommendations.

“More knowledge has been accumulated on cancer in the past decade than just about any area you could care to mention. The premier (Ernie Eves) has decided that we will do something we can perform and accomplish at an international level,” says Stiller. “Dr Stephenson and I are responsible for recommending to government that board make-up and there will be an international search for the president and CEO. The board will also have an extraordinary level of expertise.”

Stiller says the international study conducted by the Connell working group were mandated to answer three simple questions: If not cancer, what?; If not Ontario, where: and, If not now, when? After delivering its findings, the response was unequivocal, although the process of gaining approval was exhaustive and time consuming.

“The premier and the Finance minister responded to the questions with Cancer. In Ontario. Now,” says Stiller. There was a robust review but it didn’t mean the vision was lost. It will be delivered.”

The details for how CRIO will operate are still being formulated, but it’s known that it will have a critical mass in Toronto centred around existing capacity at the Princess Margaret Hospital, with nodes established throughout the province in cities such as Ottawa, Hamilton and Kingston.

The majority of funding will reportedly be used to attract and recruit top-flight research expertise. The new money will also be devoted to assisting in the translation of new knowledge into effective cancer treatments and boosting investment in related industries.

“The significance of this investment is a tribute to past investments and the people who have shown results, leading the government to commit more money,” says Ken Knox president of both the CF and Ontario Innovation Trust. “Ontario is going to be well positioned to assist other leading cancer research institutes in the global fight for solutions to the problems cancer brings.”

Knox says CRIO’s return on investment will be measured by the evolving economic activity stemming from the Institute’s research and decreasing the tremendous social damage caused by cancer.

“In all of my endeavours in the S&T field, this is the most incredible decision the government has made. I look forward to doing our bit on this,” says Knox, a former DM with the Ministry of Energy, Science and Technology. “We want to do this as quickly as possible, but SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has cramped our ability to start consultations.”

Observers familiar with CRIO and the process leading to its creation note that the province’s commitment of such a large amount of money will be extremely effective in leveraging funds from Canadian and international sources.

“The objective seems to be to create an institute that becomes internationally known, along the lines of (New York City’s) Sloan-Ketterling Cancer Centre. It’s also to make Ontario a place that’s well known by industry and academics as a place that gets things done and makes things happen,” says OCRN president and CEO Dr Bob Phillips. “Clearly the goal of government is to have a major impact on health by dealing with the cancer problem and recognizing that there are economic opportunities with the creation of new drugs, gadgets and interventions.”

While CRIO is primarily focused on basic research, the OCRN mandate is more applied. The Network has received $100 million in two tranches to enhance translation research by funding projects that accelerate the development of new therapies. It also aims to double the number of people participating in clinical trials (primarily those that industry is not interested in funding) and developing and maintaining a tumour bank network.

Along with more commercially oriented projects like the MaRS (Medical and Related Sciences) project, the provincial government is attracting considerable attention as it develops a network of research and support infrastructure that will benefit all medical fields. But funding to combat cancer is clearly the major focus.

“The cancer community is cautiously optimistic,” says Phillips. “One billion dollars is a lot of money, but what will it be spent on They want the money flow to start slowly.”


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