02/13/2014 01:01 EST | Updated 04/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada's Global Collaboration Revolution

Over the past few years, we have seen rapid change in health research with the adoption of faster and more powerful information technology being applied to our growing understanding of genomics and the human body. A better understanding of the impact of genetics in disease will enable customization of healthcare with medical decisions, treatments and practices, being tailored to the individual patient -- bringing about advances in health outcomes. With an estimated 5400 medicines currently in development across the globe, the future certainly looks promising.

No less exciting to me is a revolution of a different sort: a Collaboration Revolution that is taking place in health research. As science becomes more specialized with a growing numbers of skills sets required to manage a project, researchers across the globe have organized themselves into "virtual" centres of excellence -- connected by the internet, bringing the best and the brightest together to find solutions in a number of areas. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) was created, in part, in the late 1990's by the visionary Henry Friesen as a way to harness the expertise and ingenuity of collaborative research.

Indeed the notion of how a nation collaborates between academics, business and governments is now a key measurement on how countries measure their success as an innovative nation. Canadians see themselves as a nation of collaborators. Studies bear this out although we have been slipping a little in recent years. In the World Economic Forum's 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report, a survey of business leaders ranked Canada 15th out of 144 economies with respect to university-industry R&D collaboration, a decrease from 7th place in 2010-11.

In Canada, we have seen collaboration lead by the Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders (CORD), Health Canada, the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH) and Canada's Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (Rx&D). Their goal is to come up with ways to provide access to new and existing treatments for rare diseases and to provide patients and healthcare professionals with up-to-date information about treatment options. This is also evident in Quebec with the Personalized Medicine Partnership for Cancer (PMPC) as well as in the exciting work in Toronto lead by MaRS to generate innovation.

This leads me to a novel collaborative partnership called the Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP) that has received a fair amount of media attention over the past few days. This sort of collaborative partnership is an incredibly positive step for our industry that will help provide benefits to Canadians as well as research opportunities for our universities and research hospitals. The U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) is coordinating the efforts of health charities and ten large innovative pharmaceutical companies in pooling resources and scientific data to find new treatments for Alzheimer's, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

The initiative will start with an investment of $230 million to share scientific data about the basic biology of these diseases. Instead of working in silos and encountering research challenges so familiar to us in health research, where 95 per cent of R&D for treatments/cures are abandoned before they hit the market, life science companies are working together to identify the most promising areas of research. The goal is to improve science and discovery and speed up the process towards new cures and treatments for Alzheimer's, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus, with the hope to serve as the template for future collaborations in other disease areas.

At the same time, the CIHR, the Association of Canadian Academic Heathcare Organizations, Rx&D and many others have been working closely to make Canada a more attractive destination for clinical trials through a partnership called the National Clinical Trials Summit. Clinical trials are important, because they make the latest treatments available for patients, they strengthen our academic research networks, and they help us attract and retain top research talent to Canada. In short, clinical trials are more than just research -- they are a public good. Over the past few years, despite the many advantages we feel exist in Canada, our clinical trial activity has dropped due to a number of factors, including increased competition from other jurisdictions. It is our hope that the initiatives we are proposing through the National Clinical Trials Action Plan, as well as our proximity to the U.S. and the AMP initiative with the NIH, that Canada will be seen as the destination of choice for clinical trials.

When we look at the innovation taking place in healthcare and health research we cannot lose sight of the key role of collaboration and partnership. How we work together is just as important as the emerging technologies and knowledge we are trying to harness. As a nation of collaborators, Canada is well-positioned to participate in the global trend towards greater cooperation and collaboration in health research. Let us hope the Accelerating Medicines Partnership is just the beginning of a new successful chapter in our health research story.