Drug Research Institute gears up for growth
— ‘Exceptional researchers’ may attract valuable clinical drug trials —
By Kathryn Warden
It’s not often trumpeted, but University of Saskatchewan has some outstanding clinical researchers who’ve tested “breakthrough” drugs for diseases ranging from AIDS to rheumatoid arthritis.
The Saskatchewan Drug Research Institute (SDRI), a U of S unit that brings industry sponsors and researchers together, is currently providing support services for more than 200 drug trials that are worth over $6.5 million.
And as participants in a recent SDRI symposium heard, there’s “huge” potential for continued growth.
Worldwide, there’s expected to be a 20-per-cent annual increase in clinical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. Canada has been considered the third most preferred location, but global competition is getting stiffer, with countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic offering cost-effective advantages.
While pharmaceutical research has been increasing in Saskatchewan, the province has attracted far less drug company-sponsored research – both basic and clinical – than its two nearest neighbors. Since 1988, Saskatchewan has attracted $50 million — half of Manitoba’s total and a fifth of Alberta’s.
Marianne Greer, who took over the directorship of SDRI a year ago, is determined to ensure that Saskatchewan doesn’t get passed over by pharmaceutical companies looking for clinical research sites.
“We’ve got some exceptional clinical researchers in this province,” says Greer. “There are people right here in our own backyard who are important in the international drug research community, among them Dr. Roger Pierson (reproductive medicine), Dr. Ali Rajput (Parkinson’s disease) and Dr. Declan Quinn (attention deficit disorder).”
She points out that clinical research contributes to the health of Saskatchewan people, helps attract and retain top medical faculty and physicians to the province, and provides significant economic spin-offs.
For example, Pierson led the 14-centre North American trials for a stick-on hormone patch that is much more effective than the pill and ends the risk of forgetting to take a pill every day. His experience designing the testing protocol for the patch has led to a new international standard for contraceptive testing. As well, these drug trials brought more than $1.5 million into the Saskatchewan economy (assuming a multiplier effect of $2.44 for every research dollar).
“Strong academic research enhances good clinical research and vice versa,” says Pierson.
“Our work with the contraceptive patch has spun off a whole new avenue of basic research that’s now being pursued in collaboration with the vet college. This work that I’m doing along with Dr. Femi Olatunbosun could change the way emergency contraception is viewed.”
Pierson, the first in the world to use ultrasound to directly visualize human ovulation, was also awarded a clinical research grant from a Swiss company to test a new drug that he’s found induces ovulation safely and effectively. His lab was the only site in the world chosen for the trial. The trial, which will end when the last two patients deliver their babies this month, has brought in more than $1 million to Saskatchewan.
“SDRI helped us negotiate budgets and provided expert advice to ensure compliance with the very strict international guidelines for human clinical trials,” he says. “They also helped us train our clinical co-ordinators to international standards.”
At present, more than 150 Saskatchewan physicians and clinical research co-ordinators are involved in drug trials involving more than 50 sponsor companies in more than 17 therapeutic areas. Among them:
Right now the hottest area for drug development in Canada is oncology and that’s an area where Saskatchewan could do more, Greer says. Other challenges include the loss of some of Saskatchewan’s leading clinical researchers to other provinces and the need to develop clear and co-ordinated university and health district policies on the conduct of clinical trials.
Another issue is that since clinical research is funded by the private sector, it is sometimes regarded as “less academic” than publicly funded research.
But Greer stresses that clinical research is highly regulated and “undergoes quality control checks unheard of in other types of research.” She points out that drug trials must meet strict ethical and regulatory requirements.
“It’s better to do the research here, know the ins and outs of it and be in a position to criticize it, if need be, than to have it all done someplace else, such as Ontario or Quebec,” she says.
Pierson thinks Saskatchewan has a natural advantage because there’s already a high level of volunteer participation in clinical trials.
“The potential here is enormous and it’s because Saskatchewan people tend to be altruistic and have a pioneering spirit. Our volunteers are often bent on helping their fellow human beings.”