In 1875, a group of Toronto women led by Elizabeth McMaster rented an 11-room house in downtown Toronto. They set up six iron cots and declared an open hospital “for the admission and treatment of all sick children.” The Hospital for Sick Children (Sick Kids) had been established, but simply providing medical care wasn’t enough to deal with the health issues that face children and their developing bodies.
Children are more than just small adults and the developing nature of childhood and adolescence provide an opportunity to not only understand how we grow into the people we are, but to also treat and prevent problems in the future.
In order to treat and prevent children’s health problems in the future, the Nutritional Research Laboratory was created at Sick Kids in 1918. At the early part of the 20th century, malnutrition was the leading cause of infant death.
In 1930, nutritional research by Drs. Alan Brown, Fred Tisdall and Theo Drake lead to the development of a new quick-to-prepare, low cost cereal that later became world famous as Pablum. Also developed by this team were Sunwheat Biscuits, a high-nutrition biscuit.
Royalties from Pablum and Sunwheat Biscuits, along with two large donor bequests from were instrumental in the creation of The Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute, which formally established as a division within the hospital in 1954.
Now, years later, Sick Kids is the largest paediatric academic health sciences centre in Canada. With a shared focus on both basic science and clinical research, the Research Institute is composed of almost half PhD trained and half clinically-trained researchers.
Over the 50-year history of the institute the growth has been dramatic. The shift from a medium-sized institution to a larger one began at the beginning of the 1970s.
“Dr. Aser Rothstein basically expanded the Research Institute from a small size to a mid-size institute with about 40 investigators over a period of 10 years,” said Dr. Manuel Buchwald, director of the Sick Kids Research Institute since 1995. “With the development of the provincially funded Medicare system for patient care, funding from donors to the hospital could be redirected towards research.”
With new-found resources, the Institute was ready to expand. In a period of only 10 years the number of investigators increased from 15 to 40. That number presently stands over 200. The Institute’s 2003-2004 operating budget is over $100 million, with extensive funding coming from The Hospital for Sick Children Foundation, which funds almost 15 per cent of the Institute’s budget, including scientists’ salaries, and from external granting agencies like the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
The Research Institute is comprised of 12 programs: Brain and Behaviour Research, Cancer Research, Cardiovascular Research, Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, Genetics and Genomic Biology, Infection, Immunity, Injury and Repair Research, Integrative Biology, Lung Biology, Metabolism Research, Population Health Sciences, and Structural Biology and Biochemistry. Currently, there are approximately 1,700 staff and trainees involved in over 900 funded projects, including more than 1,700 active clinical protocols.
While Pablum was the research discovery that propelled the Institute into existence, the medical and scientific discoveries have grown with the organization. The discoveries have impacted child health in a plethora of ways. From clinical developments like a surgery technique developed in 1963 to correct transposition of the great arteries of the heart, the birth defect of “blue babies”, was pioneered by Dr. William Mustard, a Sick Kids researcher. Appropriately the procedure is called the “Mustard Procedure”. Or scientific discoveries that can eventually translate into treatments, like the gene defect that causes Tay-Sachs disease, identified in 1988.
Researchers at Sick Kids have discovered stem cells for the blood system and for brain tumours. They have also developed a novel concept for anti-cancer treatment of recurrent acute lymphoblatsic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer. In 1989, Dr. Lap-Chee Tsui led a team that discovered the gene which, when defective, is responsible for cystic fibrosis. And just last year, Sick Kids scientists compiled the complete DNA sequence of human chromosome 7 and decoded nearly all of the genes on this medically important portion of the human genome.
The Sick Kids Research Institute will be celebrating its 50th anniversary throughout 2004. Learn more about research at Sick Kids at www.sickkids.ca.