$10-mil­lion fed­eral grant brings prom­i­nent pain re­searcher to McGill

Montreal Gazette - - Montreal|quebec - KAREN SEI­D­MAN GAZETTE UNI­VER­SI­TIES RE­PORTER ksei­d­man@ mon­tre­al­gazette.com Twit­ter: KSei­d­man

You don’t need to be a world­class re­searcher in pain to un­der­stand that McGill Univer­sity’s an­nounce­ment that it has landed a $10-mil­lion fed­eral grant to bring in a lead­ing ex­pert on pain re­search was com­pletely pain­less.

There were smiles all around as Luda Di­atchenko was in­ducted into the univer­sity, where she will con­tinue her cut­ting-edge re­search into the silent epi­demic of chronic pain and how it is af­fected by our genes.

This marks the first time the $10 mil­lion Canada Ex­cel­lence Re­search Chair (CERC) has been awarded to McGill, and the first time it has been given out for pain re­search. It also marks the first time the pres­ti­gious re­search chair has been given to a woman. In ad­di­tion to the $10 mil­lion, an­other $20 mil­lion f rom pub­lic and pri­vate sources will go to­ward the chair — in­clud­ing from the Que­bec govern­ment, Pfizer and McGill. The Canada Foun­da­tion for In­no­va­tion will pro­vide a fur­ther $785,000 for re­search in­fra­struc­ture.

We will soon find out if money can buy re­lief for the one-in-five Cana­di­ans who suf­fers f rom de­bil­i­tat­ing pain.

A world leader in pain ge­net­ics, Di­atchenko is leav­ing the Univer­sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to set up shop at McGill, where she will pur­sue her pas­sion for study­ing the molec­u­lar and ge­netic mech­a­nisms of hu­man pain.

“Pain is not only the main rea­son why peo­ple visit a doc­tor; pain is also a mys­te­ri­ous, un­der­stud­ied and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated phe­nom­e­non,” she said.

As a for­mer leader of one of Canada’s main sci­en­tific grant­ing agen­cies, McGill’s new prin­ci­pal, Suzanne Fortier, ac­knowl­edged that she was in­volved in the CERC process in her for­mer ca­pac­ity as a mem­ber of the steer­ing com­mit­tee that stud­ied the grant, but she cred­ited for­mer prin­ci­pal Heather Mun­roe-Blum with be­ing the one who pulled off the coup that brought Di­atchenko to McGill.

“Peo­ple of that stature have of­fers from ev­ery­where, so it speaks to the strength of the pro­gram that she chose here,” Fortier said. (Di­atchenko said the old build­ings, sup­port­ive com­mu­nity and su­perb pain pro­gram at McGill ap­pealed to her — and the winters aren’t a prob­lem for her, see­ing as she hails from Rus­sia.)

McGill al­ready boasts the Alan Ed­wards Cen­tre for Re­search on Pain, one of the lead­ing pain re­search cen­tres in the world, but it is ex­pected that the ad­di­tion of Di­atchenko and her ex­per­tise in hu­man pain ge­net­ics will pro­pel the univer­sity’s re­search to a new level.

The goal, Di­atchenko says, is to have per­son­al­ized pain treat­ments — and she is hop­ing her CERC and the an­cil­lary in­fra­struc­ture, such as the five new pro­fes­sors McGill will hire to sup­port her re­search, will help her re­al­ize that ob­jec­tive.

“About 50 per cent of pain de­pends on our bio­chem­istry, which is re­lated to genes,” Di­atchenko said. “Once we un­der­stand this ge­netic vari­ant which con­trols the level of pain, it can lead to new drugs and know­ing which drug each per­son will need depend­ing on their ge­netic pro­file.”

Greg Rick­ford, min­is­ter of state for science and tech­nol­ogy, said the CERC pro­gram “is de­signed to at­tract and re­tain the world’s best re­searchers, and that’s what we’re de­liv­er­ing.

“We want to en­sure the best and bright­est are com­ing to Canada and to schools like McGill.”

Since the pro­gram launched in 2008, he said, the govern­ment has com­mit­ted nearly $190 mil­lion over seven years to sup­port re­search ex­cel­lence at Cana­dian uni­ver­si­ties.

There are 18 CERCs at Cana­dian uni­ver­si­ties (in­clud- ing a cou­ple in Que­bec). In June 2011, the govern­ment an­nounced fund­ing to sup­port the cre­ation of 10 new CERCs, of which Di­atchenko is the first.

The Con­ser­va­tives, how­ever, have taken a fair bit of crit­i­cism from some in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity who say it only sup­ports tar­geted re­search and not the ba­sic science re­search that of­ten leads to the most rev­o­lu­tion­ary dis­cov­er­ies.

Rick­ford said most re­search doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily know where it’s go­ing at the be­gin­ning, but then it evolves. To keep it fair, the grant­ing coun­cils do peer re­view and work in­de­pen­dently from the govern­ment, he said.

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