Montreal Gazette

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

- KAREN SEIDMAN GAZETTE UNIVERSITI­ES REPORTER kseidman@ montrealga­ 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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