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A strategy for a healthy Alberta

University launches Clinical, Health Services, and Population Health Research Platform Strategy
October 25, 2016

Left to right: Lorina Platon, lab technician, Heritage Medical Research Clinic (HMRC); Carolyn Robertson, manager, HMRC; Virginia Chow, trial co-ordinator, University of Calgary Liver Unit; Valerie Eckstein, trial patient; Shirley Cole, trial co-ordinator, Liver Unit; Virginia Gonzales, lab technician, HMRC; Valerie McKendrick, nurse, HMRC. 

Download the Clinical, Health Services, and Population Health Research Platform Strategy (PDF).

Trial patient Valerie Eckstein with Shirley Cole, trial co-ordinator in the University of Calgary Liver Unit.

Being healthy is fundamental to enjoying a good quality of life. Just ask Valerie Eckstein. A few years ago, she wasn’t feeling well and kept going to her family doctor. She saw a few specialists and was eventually diagnosed with hepatitis C.

Eckstein’s doctor asked whether she was interested in being part of a clinical research trial testing different medications for hepatitis C at the University of Calgary Liver Unit (UCLU), the largest non-transplant hepatology group in Canada and an international leader in the field.

She was up for it.

Eckstein joined one of hundreds of UCalgary’s successful clinical trials that are advancing treatments in a wide range of different diseases. “I thought it was a good thing because you have all these people supporting you,” says Eckstein. “The nurses and doctors were so good. I wasn’t worried about taking drugs from drug companies that they’re experimenting with.”

Strategy to focus on Clinical, Health Services, and Population Health research

When Dr. Cello Tonelli was appointed associate vice-president (research) in 2014, he was charged with leading the development of a new research platform strategy that would help move the dial on clinical research, research on health services and systems, and research on the social, cultural and environmental factors that affect health of populations. While the area wasn’t explicitly identified in the university’s Strategic Research Plan as a theme or platform, it is guided by the plan’s three priorities — matching strengths with opportunities, increasing research capacity, and creating a dynamic environment to promote research excellence — and builds upon the plan’s Research Enablers’ Platform.

The Clinical, Health Services, and Population Health Research Platform Strategy (CHSPH) aims to focus UCalgary’s strengths in these areas in order to help many more people like Eckstein. It was approved by the Board of Governors in May 2016.

The strategy complements the four health-relevant Strategic Research Themes — Brain and Mental Health; Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering; Human Dynamics in a Changing World; and Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases.  

The new strategy will help develop infrastructure, support the design and conduct of clinical trials, co-ordinate campus-wide investment in bioinformatics and visualization of "big data," and work toward changing Albertans’ health-related behaviours.

Helping clinical trials grow and flourish

“The University of Calgary has a long and successful history of health research collaborations,” says Ed McCauley, vice-president (research). “The Clinical, Health Services and Population Health Research Platform Strategy will leverage and strengthen our confederation of scholars to translate ground-breaking discoveries from the bench to society.”

Building on UCalgary’s strong track record of interdisciplinary health research, the strategy will facilitate developing a state-of-the art facility for clinical trials that will ensure greater access to trial treatments, excellence in trial conduct and more efficient processes — all in an effort to see clinical trials at the university grow and flourish.

CHSPH builds on the university’s Strategic Research Plan’s Research Enablers Platform and its commitment to improve systems and facilities as well as advance research in a number of areas including animal care, ethics in human subject research, financial and conflict of interest compliance and governance.

Supporting research and researchers

The CHSPH strategy will focus on developing three types of infrastructure that are required for those undertaking pillar 2-4 CIHR research, which includes clinical research, health services research and social, cultural, environmental and population health research.

“The strategy identifies key enablers and critical partnerships that will propel our university to realize our vision for a healthy Alberta,” says Tonelli. “The key enablers include infrastructure and human capacity to support health research. The key infrastructure includes co-ordinating our investments into bioinformatics and visualization across campus, building our capacity to help change health-related behaviour, enhancing our evidence-informed practice and creating a world-class unit for the design and conduct of clinical trials.”

Hundreds of scholars, who may not see themselves primarily as health researchers, contribute important knowledge, creativity, skills and expertise to building a healthy Alberta. And researchers from virtually every faculty — Arts and Environmental Design to the Schulich School of Engineering and the School of Public Policy — will benefit from the CHSPH strategy and investments.

Director appointed to implement CHSPH strategy

Sabine Moritz has been appointed director, Clinical, Health Services and Population Health Research to implement the strategy. Before joining the UCalgary, Moritz worked for Alberta Health Services leading the Tom Baker Cancer Center Clinical Trials Unit.

“I am looking forward to facilitating the strategy implementation through the development of research platforms and through furthering partnerships with key stakeholders who share the vision for a healthy Alberta,” says Moritz.

Happy and healthy ending

Treatment progress for any disease relies on human trials being able to demonstrate that a new treatment is superior to a standard one. Valerie Eckstein’s first clinical trial didn’t work for her and she was removed after a few months.

But a year later she was accepted into another UCLU trial to test a treatment for hepatitis C. “The second trial didn’t involve any shots, it was just pills,” she says. These days Eckstein, who is newly retired, feels great. And she’s pleased her participation in clinical trials contributed valuable data to help treat other people who have liver disease.

UCLU has been conducting liver research for more than 20 years and has been a key player in a number of successes in treating hepatitis C. The researchers are among over 300 investigators at UCalgary conducting clinical trials that offer leading edge treatments to Albertans and inform evidence-based practice around the world.

“It’s a good thing that they have this research at the university,” says Eckstein. “The people who are running the trials are trying for success. They want the best for everybody.”