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Cancer research: An investment in the future

It's a dreaded disease that has afflicted humans for centuries. In recent decades, scientists around the world have been tirelessly searching for a cancer cure. Canadians are no exception. Amid constant fights for funding, concerns about "brain drain" and controversies over alternative therapies, Canada has made some vital breakthroughs in cancer research — from the invention of the "cobalt bomb" in the 1950s to the more recent innovations of cancer research icon Tak Mak.

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It's a risky venture, but it could pay off big time for Canada. Over the next decade, France-based pharmaceutical company Pasteur Mérieux Connaught will be investing $350 million on cancer research in Canada. The Canadian government will also invest $60 million in the project. "We hope that it will produce profits," says Prime Minister Chrétien in this 1997 CBC Television News clip. If the research goes nowhere, the money will be lost. But the federal government calls the investment "a reasonable risk."

Many doctors agree. Others are careful to emphasize that this kind of research has absolutely no guarantees. "To actually get a product which helps cancer patients is a very difficult challenge," explains the University of Toronto's Dr. Malcolm Moore. 
. The federal government's contribution was a "repayable investment," which means the government shares in any profits made from the sale of vaccines created. If the research is unsuccessful there will be no profits. But cancer research advocates believed it would be money well spent either way: "It's really important at this point to figure out what works and what doesn't... Any kind of research initiative in this area, we applaud," said the Canadian Cancer Society's Alexandra Radkewycz in a 1997 Edmonton Journal article.

. Although many applauded the announcement, a few Canadian pharmaceutical companies criticized the government's choice to partner up with a multinational company based in France rather than a home-grown Canadian company. In a 1997 Edmonton Journal article, a representative from Edmonton biotech company AltaRex said: "It does strike us as odd, to say the least." Other Canadian companies looked on the bright side, however, hoping to collaborate on the project in some way.

. The project has involved numerous organizations across the country, including hospitals, universities and other biotechnology companies. Researchers from the University of Manitoba, Halifax's Dalhousie University and Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital were among the first to be included in the project.

. When the project was first announced, the initial goals included developing preventive vaccines for cancer of the bladder, prostate and cervix, as well as colorectal and skin cancer. The second stage was to create vaccines for breast, ovarian and lung cancer. By 2004, the project concentrated on fewer types of cancers. The Aventis Pasteur (formerly Pasteur Mérieux Connaught) website noted that the main focus was now finding vaccines for colorectal and skin cancer.

. According to the Aventis Pasteur website, there were clinical trials going on throughout 2004 for colorectal and melanoma (skin cancer) vaccines. The goal of both of these trials, explained the website, "is to gain insight into how vaccines may serve to enhance standard chemotherapy regimens and to ascertain how they affect both early and later-stage patients in terms of improved clinical outcomes." Results have been promising, according to the company, and further trials are underway (2005).

. In general, Canadian cancer research has been getting high marks in recent years. In a study done in 2001 by Dr. Francesco Grossi of Italy's National Institute for Research on Cancer, Canada ranked first in the world in terms of the "impact" of its research. Although other countries - such as the United States - produced far more cancer research studies, a higher proportion of Canada's total output has been more influential than the United States's.

. Reacting to the Italian study, Michael Wosnick of the National Cancer Institute of Canada was "beaming," according to a 2001 Canadian Press story. "Canadian scientists just have a way of doing more with less. It may not always be the most efficient way of doing things, we may not always have the very best equipment or the shiniest brand-new gizmo. But when it comes down to ingenuity, creativity and innovation, we're as good as anybody and better than some."
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: June 25, 1997
Guest(s): Michael Baker, Jean-Jacques Bertrand, Jean Chrétien, John Manley, Malcolm Moore
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Havard Gould
Duration: 2:30

Last updated: November 16, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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