Drafting a Canadian health policy for rare diseases

U of T researchers say Canada needs to create new framework to broaden access

Drafting a Canadian health policy for rare diseases

In the last federal budget, the Canadian government committed one billion dollars over two years, starting in 2022, to cover the costs of health care related to rare diseases. Canada’s relative lack of a rare disease policy opens conversations on what should be included in an effective strategy to provide Canadians better access to drugs for these ‘orphan diseases.’

Dr. Joel Lexchin, an associate professor at U of T’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, and Nicholas Moroz, a recent Master of Public Health graduate at U of T, published a paper on the subject. It analyzed whether a rare disease policy similar to Australia’s could be effectively implemented in Canada to broaden the availability of treatment options for patients with rare diseases in the country.

The state of orphan diseases in Canada

Orphan diseases are rare diseases that affect approximately five people in 10,000. These diseases have been the subject of policy discourse in Canada for more than two decades, yet no policy has been set, according to the authors. 

Now, as legislators have a go-ahead from the government for investing in orphan drug treatments, they must also consider the best policy for regulating them.

Health Canada currently has two regulatory pathways in place that facilitate the speedy delivery of orphan drugs to the market. These provide patients access to orphan drugs in the interim of passing a formal policy, according to the authors. 

The first is the priority review, which takes 180 days, instead of the standard 300-day review. The second is a 200-day conditional approval of drugs based on limited clinical data. 

Would an orphan drug policy be beneficial?

To determine if a drug policy such as Australia’s would be beneficial to improving access to drugs, Lexchin and Moroz looked at the frequency and speed drugs assigned an ‘orphan’ status by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were approved by Australia and Canada. 

The paper does not suggest that an orphan drug policy like Australia’s would help improve access to medicine in terms of speed or variety. 

The conclusions showed that both Health Canada and the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved 74 of the 119 drugs designated for orphan diseases by the FDA. Health Canada shows more propensity for approving drugs, as it approved an additional 11 drugs, while the TGA only approved four other drugs. 

There was no significant difference between the approval rate by Canada and Australia. 

Why do we even need an orphan drug policy?

Australia’s orphan drug policy is focused on getting drugs to the market rapidly. However, the authors noted that Canadian lawmakers could help patients by considering other objectives, including incentives for drug development and economic accessibility. 

While Australia implemented fee waivers for applications for orphan drug status and annual registration, its policy does not guarantee market exclusivity, grants, or tax credits targeted at orphan drug research. Lexchin and Moroz think that such a framework would help provide developmental incentives for new drugs, which is one of the objectives that they argue Canada should include in orphan drug framework. 

When it comes to economic accessibility of orphan drugs, the study recommends that the government include public subsidies and reduce the price charged by companies.  

There is no evidence that having an orphan drug framework similar to Australia’s would make Canada a more attractive market for orphan drugs, wrote the authors. They concluded that in order for Canada to provide quicker access to orphan drugs, it is essential for the policy framework to be much different than the one in place in Australia.

Former USMC president criticizes SMC magazine cover of pro-choice federal minister

SMC alum McKenna featured, David Mulroney cites Roman Catholic values in criticism

Former USMC president criticizes SMC magazine cover of pro-choice federal minister

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna, a pro-choice politician, was the centre of criticism after being featured on the cover of the Summer 2019 issue of St. Michael’s — the University of St. Michael’s College (SMC) alumni magazine.

SMC is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes abortion under any circumstance. This was the same position that David Mulroney, the former president of SMC, took when criticizing McKenna in an article on LifeSiteNews, an anti-abortion publication.

McKenna, an SMC graduate, was featured in her alma mater’s alumni magazine for her accomplishments in a piece called “Living your Passion.” Mulroney’s frustration with the feature stems from McKenna’s public stance on abortion.

McKenna is publicly pro-choice, and often expresses her views on social media. According to Mulroney, these opinions directly conflict with Catholic values.

“When an alumna is invited to address a theology class it is because the university believes that she has some relevant insights to share. It becomes problematic when the alumna has a very significant role in taking actions that run seriously counter to Catholic teachings,” Mulroney commented to The Varsity.

While Mulroney was under the impression that McKenna was addressing a theology class, she was in fact there to meet with environmental studies and eco-theology students — she was not invited to address any classes.

Mulroney further expressed that McKenna’s status and accomplishments should not be a factor in her selection for the magazine cover. Rather, the magazine should feature someone who “exemplifies the best of what a university stands for.”

Despite SMC’s decision, Mulroney believes that “a Catholic University must be faithful to both [worlds]. It encourages the free exchange of ideas, but is unafraid to engage its students in what constitutes a good life.” This quality, he believes, is lacking “at a time when secular society, including secular universities are increasingly intolerant of alternative perspectives.”

SMC Director of Communications, Laurie Morris, wrote in an email to The Varsity that the college “always welcome[s] and encourage[s] feedback from our community on all articles and alumni profiles.”

Morris declined to make any further comments on McKenna, citing inappropriate timing in relation to the upcoming federal election.

McKenna, who faces regular criticism for her work as an MP and minister, now has a security detail — which is uncommon for federal ministers. In an interview with the CBC, McKenna said that, while these threats have been ongoing since her election, in person confrontations have gotten worse only recently.

Editor’s Note (September 17, 1:37 pm): Article was amended to clarify that McKenna was not invited to address any classes at SMC.

Opinion: A national pharma care plan could rein in soaring drug prices

Lack of prescription drug coverage has led to some of the highest costs in the world

Opinion: A national pharma care plan could rein in soaring drug prices

Canada has one of the highest prices for prescriptions drugs in the world. Prescription drug spending has become the second-largest cost to the Canadian health care system, ranking only behind hospital expenditures.

That cost is only rising.

A number of factors, such as demographics and prescription volume, are responsible for this increase. However, the main factor driving up overall spending is the ballooning cost of prescribed medications itself.

The drug development process

The pharmaceutical industry has made incredible advances in recent years. There are now medications that can help manage and even cure diseases that were once untreatable. However, these medications often come with hefty charges. For example, the cost of hepatitis C treatment can well exceed $100,000 per patient.

It is estimated that these high-cost drugs will account for 42 per cent of prescription drug expenditure by 2020, a figure that is well above its 17.5 per cent share in 2010.

According to pharmaceutical companies, the steep price is needed, in part, to finance the extensive drug development process. This process takes well over a decade and includes preclinical testing, clinical trials for safety and efficacy, as well as the federal drug application review.

For every 5000 compounds discovered, five drugs enter clinical trials and just one new drug receives federal approval. Although most firms decline to disclose the cost of research and development, it can vary from several hundred million dollars to over $12 billion.

Once the drug is approved for sale in Canada, the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPRB) — a federal agency — sets the maximum price of the drug based on the price of similar medications on the market.

Prescription drug coverage in the Canadian health care system

Canada is the only high-income economy — nations with at least $12,056 USD in gross national income per capita — with a public health care system that does not include prescription drug coverage. Although drugs administered in hospitals are provided to patients at no cost, patients out of hospitals must purchase prescription medications either through insurance plans, whether public or private, or from their own pocket.

Public insurance plans are offered by provincial and territorial governments to special populations, such as the elderly, individuals with disabilities, and unemployed individuals. Private insurance plans may be available as a benefit to individuals through their employer.

The number and type of medications covered by public and private insurance plans vary significantly. Patients who have neither a public nor a private insurance plan must pay for their prescriptions themselves.

Furthermore, due to the presence of multiple public and private insurance plans in Canada, there is no single agent for pharmaceutical companies to bargain with when setting drug prices.

“When you have a single agent, [that agent has a] much stronger ability to drive down what [Canadians are] going to pay,” said Dr. Jodel Lexchin, an associate professor at U of T’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, in an interview with The Varsity.

“Drug companies know that if they cannot reach a suitable price with that bargaining body, then they may still be able to sell the drug in the country.”

However, Lexchin noted that companies are disincentivized from selling prescription drugs directly to the public. The firms would receive less revenue, as insurance providers can afford to pay higher prices for prescription drugs as opposed to patients who are paying out of pocket.

The role of the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board

The PMPRB attempts to mitigate the lack of a single payer health care system in Canada by controlling the prices of patented drugs. The organization can challenge the price of patented drugs sold in Canada and demand pharmaceutical companies to repay some revenue.

While the number of investigations into high-cost drugs has been rising, regulations proposed by Health Canada would allow the PMPRB to assess the value of new drugs by reviewing cost-effectiveness analyses, which may lower maximum drug prices.

However, these individual successes are unlikely to have a significant impact on the pricing war between pharmaceutical companies and bargaining agents. The PMPRB can control the price of a single high-cost drug on the market, but subsequent drugs may also be priced outrageously upon entering the market.

Considering it is not feasible for federal agencies to open investigations into all emerging high-cost drugs, Lexchin believes that a system-level change to address drug prices is needed.

Drug prices in the global pharmaceutical market

“The only group that really benefits [from high drug prices] are the companies that are making the products,” explained Lexchin. These are multinational companies that have substantial power in the United States. For this reason, the US has the highest drug prices in the world and a considerably larger market than Canada.

Pharmaceutical companies worry that similar prices could spread into the US, if Canada attempts to lower our drug prices. Therefore, these companies lobby the American government to put pressure on Canadian officials and prevent regulation that would result in lower drug prices.

Despite having lower prices than the US, drug prices in Canada are already greater than the global average. Drug prices in other high-income countries, such as Denmark, can be less than half of those in Canada.

Many of these high-income countries have a universal health care system that includes prescription drug coverage. Having a single payer system for prescription drugs gives them greater bargaining power and effectively reduces drug prices. Other countries may have profit controls.

Either way, pharmaceutical companies must control drug prices such that their profits are within the designated margin.

Next steps for Canada

There have been growing efforts within the federal government to establish a national “pharmacare” program. This means that prescription drugs would be covered as part of the universal health care system.

A national drug plan requires a national formulary, explained Lexchin, which is a list of medications covered by public insurance. Drugs on this formulary would be selected based on evidence of cost effectiveness.

For example, if five drugs in a class of medications are equally effective and safe, but vary in price, the government may only elect to pay for two of the five medications. The plan would only pay for the most cost effective medications in that group, without compromising safety or efficacy.

Patients may still be able to use private insurance plans or out-of-pocket payments to purchase the other, more expensive medications.

But without effective reforms, such as national pharma care, drug prices in Canada will continue to rise. Several drugs already have an annual cost exceeding hundreds of thousands of dollars,  which can mean a difference between life and death.

For most Canadians to be able to afford these life-saving medications, however, reform must take place to rein in these current drug prices.

Federal government announces $2.4 million investment in women’s organizations

Endowment to be distributed to five organizations to advance gender equality

Federal government announces $2.4 million investment in women’s organizations

The federal government will be donating a $2.4 million endowment to support five women’s organizations in the Davenport neighbourhood, as a part of the Department for Women and Gender Equality’s Capacity-building Fund.

Davenport MP Julie Dzerowicz, who presented the investment on May 3 on behalf of the Minister for Women and Gender Equality, said that its aims are to “help [women’s] organizations attract and retain talented leaders, to digitize critical data, to improve fundraising, and to ultimately support long-term planning through the availability of sustainable and predictable financial support.”

The press conference was hosted at Sistering, a drop-in centre for homeless or precariously housed women, which is set to receive $203,270 over five years as a part of the endowment.

Other organizations that will receive funding include the Dandelion Initiative, a project run by survivors of sexual assault and violence to tackle gender-based violence; South Asian Women’s Centre (SAWC), which aims to assist South Asian women in increasing their economic, social, and political status; Working Women Community Centre (WWCC), which provides recently immigrated women with employment counselling; and COSTI Immigrant Services, an agency which assists immigrant communities with employment, settlement, educational, and social services. They will respectively receive $740,960, $230,457, $247,598, and $980,000.

Creating “a level playing field”

Speaking on the reasoning for the investment, Dzerowicz said that it aimed to create “long-term, systemic change to ensure progress continues and women advance.”

The particular organizations were chosen for their commitment to assisting women with diverse challenges and for furthering a “strong, viable, and inclusive women’s movement.” Ultimately, Dzerowicz says that the government hopes to help create a “level playing field for everyone.”

The Dandelion Initiative will use the funds it receives to develop its “Safer Spaces Ontario: Strengthening Survivor Centric Work” project. Viktoria Belle, the Executive Director and Founder of the initiative, said at the press conference that the investment “comes at a time when we have a great need to expand and strengthen our network of support for survivors.”

Sistering’s project is expected to help address the unique challenges that homeless and transient women in Toronto face by supporting the hiring of new staff and expanding its support network and services.

The SAWC’s project aims to strengthen its long-term structure and sustainability through strategic planning and communication strategies. Kripa Sekhar, the Executive Director of the centre, said that the funding will “definitely improve the lives of women because more people will know about what we do, and enhance our ability to envision what the future’s going to look like.” This is the first time the centre has received federal funding.

The WWCC’s grant will help expand its support network for newcomer women from Portugal, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. The funding will help further the WWCC’s work in helping women with language instruction, housing, and job training. Marcie Ponte, the Executive Director, expects the investment to “make a difference in the lives of many women throughout the Greater Toronto Area.”

The largest investment, nearing $1 million, goes to COSTI’s project. With the funding, Executive Director Mario Calla hopes to enhance their ability to identify and fill service gaps for diverse women who are experiencing gender-based violence.

Opinion: Ontario budget’s climate change plan a mess of contradictions, inaction

Ford’s frivolous climate lawsuit will cost taxpayers $30 million while doing nothing for the environment

Opinion: Ontario budget’s climate change plan a mess of contradictions, inaction

The Ontario government’s frivolous $30 million lawsuit against the federal government over the carbon tax is a self-inflicted wound that the provincial 2019 budget, announced April 11, fails to address. Doug Ford’s government claims that the implementation of a carbon tax on Ontario would be ineffective, result in job losses, and be bad for business. However, he brought this tax on the province when he chose to scrap the cap and trade program, which aimed to hold industry directly accountable instead of putting the onus on consumers.

In lieu of clarification on the carbon tax or the binned cap and trade model, the budget vaguely outlines a performance-based emissions reduction program that it expects will circumvent implementation of the impending carbon tax. The program entails developing and setting emissions performance standards sector to sector and assessing reductions according to the previous output of facilities. This will be buttressed by the creation of an emissions reduction fund, meant to incentivize industries to adopt “cost-effective projects in various sectors, such as transportation,” with no mention of investments in renewable energy.

Ironically, the budget states that performance standards will be “tough but fair, cost-effective and flexible,” as if ‘tough’ and ‘flexible’ are not antonyms.

Initiatives like these may not result in substantial emissions reductions because preceding enforcement, industry can ramp up their emissions in order to be held to a lower bar — what they would have normally been producing — when the time comes to ostensibly reduce output.

Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner told The Varsity that the proposed plan mirrors the failing emissions reduction mechanism currently operating in Australia, which has a much larger budget of about $1.9 billion, compared to the $400 million “emissions reduction fund” proposed in the provincial budget.

Ford is fear mongering about job losses, when, in reality, Ontario has had a good year of job growth overall, and despite the carbon tax in British Columbia working for years. Whether Ford likes it or not, the federal government is within its rights to impose a federal tax according to the distribution of powers outlined in section 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867. The taxpayer-funded money used to fight the carbon tax will be wasted in a frivolous lawsuit.

Lastly, it is worth noting the province has based its emissions targets on the federal government’s, which was grandfathered in from the Stephen Harper era and does not comply with the Paris Agreement. Their target of reducing emissions levels by 30 per cent compared to 2005 levels by 2030 is not nearly aggressive enough to curtail catastrophic repercussions, as forewarned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report.

As Schreiner said in his address to the press during the budget lockup, it is clear that “this budget cares about the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Things to know about the 2019 federal budget

Budget increases student work placements, entrepreneurship support, eases student loan costs

Things to know about the 2019 federal budget

The federal government’s recently announced 2019 budget outlines a number of key provisions to support students and young adults, ranging from increased job creation to easing student loan repayments. What is the significance of some of these major changes, and how will they be implemented? The Varsity spoke to Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance (Youth Economic Opportunity) Jennifer O’Connell to learn more about what the budget has in store for students.

Student work placements

The federal government aims to create 84,000 new student work placements per year by 2023–2024. Expanding this program will cost about $798.2 million over five years. Of this amount, $631.2 million will be used to expand student work placements beyond the STEM fields. This will provide 20,000 new placements per year for students across numerous disciplines by 2021–2022.

Beginning in 2020–2021, $150 million will be allocated to the government’s Employment and Social Development Canada to create partnerships with businesses and support 20,000 additional student work placements.

The final portion of these changes is $17 million, budgeted to support the Business/Higher Education Roundtable, which aims to create 44,000 additional jobs per year by 2021. The initiative is run by the Business Council of Canada and partnered with a number of postsecondary institutions and private companies to “deepen collaboration and improve opportunities for young Canadians.”

“The idea is to complement current co-op programs, to complement internship initiatives, not to replicate and not to undermine existing academic institutions that have programs in place,” Bains said. “The goal is to leverage the most we can of the private sector.”

When asked how the government would ensure that its investments would be apportioned to creating student work placements that would benefit students and universities, Bains said that the vetting system “is still a work in progress” that would be adjusted “in the coming weeks and months as [the government moves] forward with implementing this initiative.”

O’Connell said that ensuring work placements are both incorporated into curricula and are paid is important. “We think that if students are being paid for their work, that [will ensure that there are no] abuses in the system, that you’re not just taking advantage of a student’s work… if a business has to pay that student, then they’re going to make sure that it’s a position that is actually adding that value.”

Entrepreneurship and research

With $38 million in renewed funding to non-profit organization Futurpreneur, the federal government is expecting to support the work of approximately 1,000 young entrepreneurs per year. Futurpreneur has provided financial and mentorship support to over 12,000 entrepreneurs since 1996.

“The exciting part is 40 per cent of them [in 2017] are women and that’s double than what we see in the private sector,” Bains said. “We’re really excited about that trendline because we want an economy that works for everyone.” Of the funding, $3 million will specifically be targeted support for Indigenous entrepreneurs.

Bains added that this funding would complement existing entrepreneurship programs at U of T, including “Vector, [the Creative Destruction Lab], or MaRS, where there’s a lot of commercialization occurring, where businesses have the opportunity, where students have the opportunities to take their ideas to market.”

Bains also mentioned Canada’s Intellectual Property Strategy, an initiative that he launched in 2018, as an example of the supports provided to young entrepreneurs and researchers more broadly.

“One thing that we are very mindful of is that as we’re developing investments in research, as we’re focusing on commercialization, that we also lead on governance,” Bains said. “I’m firmly of the view that in the coming weeks and months you’ll see us take clear positions around how do we build trust with these investments as they’re becoming more and more commercialized.”

When asked to comment on the federal government’s stance on Huawei given security concerns brought up by other countries, Bains said that it is currently analyzing whether the Chinese firm is a cause for concern over privacy and public safety. He added that the Intellectual Property Strategy is a tool that can address incursions into research, including research that U of T conducts through its million-dollar Huawei partnership. “We need to… have robust policies and frameworks to protect the Canadian ideas and Canadian partnerships.”

Student loans

In a move that will cost $1.7 billion, the budget also outlines plans to change the federal portion of student loans by lowering interest rates and making the six-month grace period following graduation interest-free. These changes are expected to save approximately $2,000 over the period of their loan repayment. For students using the Ontario Student Assistance Program, these changes counter the provincial Progressive Conservative government’s introduction of interest accrual during the grace period in January. The provincial government said that its change was to “align Ontario’s repayment terms with that of the federal government… to reduce complexity for students.”

“We think more people should be able to afford a postsecondary education and we think we’re concerned about the increase of that cost and the debt,” O’Connell said. She added that the federal government’s changes to student loans were inspired by comments and concerns it had received from before Ontario’s changes.

O’Connell, who represents the Pickering—Uxbridge riding, said that she has heard a number of concerns with the provincial government’s changes to student loans. “I think that this budget and our focus on youth and making education more affordable should be a signal,” she said. “We’re happy to work with the province if they want to align their policies in this way.”

— With files from Srivindhya Kolluru

Federal government lowers student loan interest, establishes free grace period

Additional job opportunities, mental health leave support among other changes in 2019 federal budget

Federal government lowers student loan interest, establishes free grace period

The federal government is set to lower student loan interest rates and make the six-month grace period following graduation interest-free, according to its 2019 budget released March 19. The budget also provides financial support for students who are on parental leave, increases job placement availabilities for students, and provides additional funds to attract more foreign students to Canada.

Student loans

The federal government has reduced the floating student loan interest rate to the prime rate, from its current 2.5 per cent over prime. The fixed interest rate will be reduced to prime plus two per cent from the current prime plus five per cent. Most student loan recipients use the floating interest rate, which fluctuates, as opposed to the fixed interest rate, which remains constant for the duration of the loan. The prime rate refers to the annual interest rate that major financial institutions set.

These cuts are expected to cost the federal government $1.7 billion over the next five years. The budget predicts that the average student will consequently save approximately $2,000 over the period of their loan.

Currently, during the grace period, Ontario students who use the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) are not charged the one per cent over prime interest rates for the provincial portion of their loans, but the federal portion of loans begin accumulating interest immediately following graduation.

The Ontario Progressive Conservatives’ OSAP reconfigurations earlier this year eliminated the interest-free grace period for the provincial portion of student loans. This means that the statuses of the federal and provincial portions of OSAP loans have effectively swapped. Perhaps ironically, one of the stated reasons the Ontario government made changes to OSAP was to “align Ontario’s repayment terms with that of the federal government… to reduce complexity for students.”

The federal government is also set to implement interest- and payment-free leave for students using OSAP who are on temporary leave from university due to medical or parental reasons, including mental health leave. These can be used in six-month periods for up to 18 months total.

Additionally, the budget proposes increases in compensation to provinces and territories by $20 million over five years. This compensation will be used to supplement provincial student aid systems, like OSAP.

The federal government is also set to invest $15 million to support students with loans who have disabilities or are in “vulnerable financial or life situations.”

Other changes

Sweeping changes are in store for job- and volunteer-seekers. Initiatives to create 15,000 service placements, connect 90,000 young people with jobs, add 84,000 new work placements by 2023–2024, and provide five years of support to 1,000 entrepreneurs will cost the federal government a total of $1.2 billion.  

The federal government has also proposed an additional investment of $37.4 million over five years to expand parental leave coverage for postsecondary students and postdoctoral fellows. It also expands coverage from six months to 12. The budget notes that these expansions “will further improve equity and inclusion in research.”

Over five years, $147.9 million of the budget will also be used to develop a new International Education Strategy. Part of these funds will go toward developing “an outbound student mobility program” for students who pursue studies or work abroad, while the other part will “ensure that top-tier foreign students continue to choose Canada as their education destination of choice.”

University of Toronto President Meric Gertler praised the announced expansion of master’s and doctoral scholarship awards and mobility programs. “These investments in experiential learning are investments in Canada’s future,” he said.

“The investments are good news because they will drive economic growth by giving Canadians the skills they need to succeed. They will enhance the success of U of T graduates and others across the country who are entering the labour force.”

Federal government to defund Networks of Centres of Excellence

Longstanding program has provided U of T with over $115 million since 1989

Federal government to defund Networks of Centres of Excellence

A 30-year-old federal funding program that has invested around $2 billion in scientific research, commercialization, and knowledge translation across Canada will be discontinued and phased out over the next three years, according to an announcement from Science Minister Kirsty Duncan last month. 

Lauded for increasing collaboration among scientists, researchers, and manufacturers, the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) is widely considered to be the catalyst for innovative world-renowned research that has established Canada as a global leader in science. 

Since its conception in 1989, the NCE has helped train more than 48,000 personnel, created 147 spin-off companies, and sponsored 1,332 startup companies with the goal of addressing challenges in Canada’s social and economic spheres. 

According to Vivek Goel, U of T Vice-President Research and Innovation, “The NCE program has helped support many cross-disciplinary research projects [at U of T] that brought together researchers from across the country to address pressing challenges.”

From student scholarships to startup seeds, U of T has benefitted from the variety of resources offered by 44 participating NCE organizations. The Centre for the Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) in particular has supported the launch of three successful companies with U of T connections: BlueRock Therapeutics, ExCellThera, and Avrobio. 

“Our host is [the] University of Toronto, so we have a special and deep relationship with U of T,” said Michael May, CEO of CCRM and U of T alum. “We also attract companies from around the world to work in Toronto — to help advance their own initiatives and expertise. And facilities at the University of Toronto and other institutions in Ontario are important for attracting those anchor partners.”

Although the cancellation of NCE funding for CCRM — and by proxy U of T — makes it more difficult to translate research into commercial goods, both institutions have multiple sources of funding and can continue to function according to May. 

“A lot of government funding is on projects, and the NCE funding for us was building a platform, on building an ecosystem and a very specialized team with facilities to actually drive technology forward,” said May. 

“Our connection and partnership with the University of Toronto and other institutions goes beyond one source of funding and it involves lots of people, researchers and companies. It will not affect our relationship with U of T. It just makes it harder for us to achieve our common mission of getting product from the good research that happens.”

Less than one per cent of U of T’s total research funding in 2016–2017 came from the NCE. However, for U of T’s partner organizations that fund students at U of T and are solely funded by NCE, the funding decision could be disastrous and potentially slow progress in important scientific fields.

“If we’re successful in our renewal this summer… and we get the final three years [of research funding], at the end of those three years, our program will be shut down,” explained Alex Mihailidis, principal investigator and joint Scientific Director of AGE-WELL at the Toronto Rehab Institute. AGE-WELL is an NCE-funded organization that seeks to help older Canadians maintain their quality of life through the creation of innovative technologies and services.

In light of the cuts, Mihailidis said, “Our researchers will now have to start applying to the usual programs that already exist, that historically have very poor acceptance rates or success rates.” 

“We fund a number of researchers and students at U of T. So obviously that money will be lost, we will not be able to support great research that is happening there.”

Although the federal government has announced a replacement program, the New Frontiers in Research Fund, there is growing criticism of the decision to abandon the network model. 

“What we’ve done is that we have brought the community together,” said Mihailidis. “I know what the landscape was like before AGE-WELL. We were all trying to do our own things, we weren’t working well together, we were not getting industry involved, we were not getting older adults themselves involved in research, which is so critical and AGE-WELL was able to do that.”

“We were able to bring all these pieces together into one cohesive network working together towards the common goal,” said Mihailidis.

“It worries me if [the program is] not replaced with a strategy of coordinating good academic research in institutions with vehicles like CCRM that translate them and commercialize them,” said May. “By stopping the funding and having a number of new disconnected funds be proposed… I just don’t see the productivity. I don’t see the coordination. I worry about that strategy.”