We’ve all heard of patient-centred care. But patient-centred research?
“We hope that our research is guided by patient need at the very beginning so that we are confident that the research will have a big impact. The time to ask that is before the project starts rather than at the very end,” said Dr. Michael Wood, CEO, Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute (TBRRI) and VP of Research, Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.
That’s exactly the research model that the TBRRI is pursuing as it enters its new five-year Strategic Plan, 2012-2016. The plan focuses on three main goals: Impact through Excellence in Imaging, Enabling of Research Strategic to the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre (TBRHSC), and Economic Growth and Sustainability. The key to achieving all three goals is connecting researchers with clinicians in a way that both advances the science and provides tangible patient care benefits now.
“We can see connections with a basic scientist who’s advancing a particular technology and needs a clinical partner to make sure that the technology as it develops addresses the right patient need,” Wood said.
One of those connections is in the area of High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU). TBRRI scientists developed a way to “cook” uterine fibroids using HIFU, establishing a non-invasive alternative to major surgery that can be done as an outpatient procedure.
“Clinicians come to me with innovative ideas, asking if I have these tools to create new treatments. We’re at a stage in our research with HIFU that I can confidently say ‘I think we can design something for you using HIFU,’” said Dr. Laura Curiel, one of the TBRRI scientists developing this technique. “With HIFU we’re always looking for what clinicians and patients need.”
“HIFU is an elegant technique which has powerful clinical applications,” said Dr. Andrew Siren, an obstetrician at the TBRHSC. “To have access to ‘scalpel free’ surgery is a tremendous opportunity for TBRHSC and its patients. I look forward to the privilege of our clinicians working with scientists, within and outside our institution, who are pioneering this technology.”
TBRRI scientists are now working on an MRI-guided HIFU technique that will provide higher resolution images, increasing accuracy and providing real-time temperature monitoring. When it happens, Thunder Bay will be the only site in Canada to offer it.
That is just one of the many groundbreaking medical imaging research projects going on right now at the TBRRI. When the institute launched in 2008, senior administrators purposely focused on medical imaging for several reasons. For one, it was an area that would improve the lives of almost every patient – diagnostic imaging is used for everything from assessing broken bones to identifying cancerous tumours, locating blocked arteries to the heart, and even mapping the brain. It also is currently one of the most active areas of research in the world, with new technologies allowing for faster, sharper, more accurate images.
Medical imaging research is also well suited in an acute care environment like the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, where research activities can improve patient care today as well as tomorrow. Since its inception five years ago, the TBRRI has recruited 14 research scientists, has generated over 100 jobs directly related to research, and garnered about $100 million in economic development for Northwestern Ontario. As a result of this tremendous growth, the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre added to the Research Infosource list of Top 40 Research Hospitals in Canada. The TBRRI is also one of 5 sites for OICR High Impact Clinical Trials, and is the only research centre outside of the GTA to become a member of MaRS Innovation.
Along the way, the TBRRI is redefining what research institutes can be. Previously, the best model for nurturing a research community was to collect as many researchers in one spot – usually a big city – to encourage collaborative collisions. In this Internet Age though, everyone is an email away and online forums are just as important as lunch in the local cafeteria.
In fact, the advantages of working in a smaller centre like Thunder Bay outweigh the disadvantages. Overhead costs like lab space are lower, there is less competition for resources (imaging equipment, lab space, meeting rooms, etc.), and you are more likely to know your fellow scientists professionally and socially. Many scientists find a better quality of life with the slower pace of a smaller centre. At the same time, scientists from around the world can all meet and interact in the “virtual” arena via the Internet with almost the same effect, or fly to anywhere in the world through Thunder Bay’s international airport – downtown Toronto is just 90 minutes away.
Commercialization Benefits from Patient-Centred Research Too
Patient-centred research is a goal in its own right at the TBRRI. But this tight focus has added benefits when it comes to commercialization.
“The TBRRI motto is ‘Bringing Discovery to Life’ – that’s what commercialization is all about,” said Scott Gillis, Director of Business Development and Commercialization at TBRRI. “Our focus is to take the basic research and turn it into a product or treatment method that can be used for patient care.”
As of yet, there haven’t been any TBRRI products that have reached market. One of the closest – with the help of MaRS Innovation – is Dr. John Rowlands’ X-ray Light Valve system, a new imaging system that will have many applications including in mammography. Last year, the TBRRI helped launch XLV Diagnostics Inc., a new company based in Thunder Bay that will build and market a mammography unit using the new technology.
Ultimately though, Dr. Wood said, research improves patient care in several ways from the equipment and talent our research attracts to the clinical trials happening right here in Northwestern Ontario.
“The part that makes me really proud is that through these trials we can provide additional options to our patients,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”