A former elementary school in Sudbury might not seem like an obvious choice for a medical research facility, but that’s exactly where Health Sciences North Research Institute (HSNRI) has centred its operations.
In June 2017, the $15-million, 14,000-square-foot renovated facility opened in the former St. Theresa Catholic Elementary School, located only about a 10-minute walk from Health Sciences North (HSN).
There was talk, at one time, of building a stand-alone research facility on HSN’s campus, but that idea was discarded in favour of repurposing the school.
“We’ve taken a structure and a school that meant a lot to this community and turned it into a research facility,” said Dr. Janet McElhaney, HSNRI’s vice-president of research and scientific director.
“I took four retired teachers who had taught at this school through the building about a month ago. You know, it really was a good feeling.”
HSNRI still does some research at the hospital itself, “but we had really run out of space over there,” she said.
“Moving to this building not only helped with our capacity to expand in terms of the individual researchers, but also for future recruitment,” McElhaney said. “That’s going to be an important part of this.”
HSNRI scientist Dr. Amadeo M. Parissenti, a breast cancer researcher, said he appreciates being able to rent space in the new facility for his own medical research company, RNA Diagnostics Inc.
He said he also likes that it’s a secure facility, which helps to meet certain certifications needed to provide clinical diagnostic services.
The roots of HSNRI are in the research that started with the opening of the Northeast Cancer Centre in 1990.
Five years ago, under the leadership of recently retired HSN CEO Dr. Denis Roy, the hospital created its own research institute, named the Advanced Medical Institute of Canada (AMRIC).
It was again rebranded—this time as the Health Sciences North Research Institute (HSNRI)—two years ago.
Since October, the facility has been under the leadership of Dominic Giroux, the CEO of both Health Sciences North and HSNRI. (Giroux was previously president of Laurentian University.)
As of last June, HSNRI had secured more than $21 million in funding for research projects and involved more than 1,600 participants in clinical research. Its staff complement has ballooned from 36 to about 90 full-time employees.
The institute’s priority research areas are infection and immunity, cancer solutions, personalized medicine and healthy aging, wrapped around a population health focus to achieve health equity for northern and Indigenous communities.
“We went from a model that was focused on commercialization to more of a focus on population health,” McElhaney said.
“But it doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned the whole commercialization component of what we’re trying to do. We’re addressing the needs of northern and Indigenous people…That was really the change in our mandate.”
Parissenti, who has been with HSNRI and its predecessors since 1995, has, along with research associate Dr. Baoqing Guo, developed a tool for the treatment of breast cancer called RNA Disruption Assay (RDA).
Licensed to Parissenti’s company, RNA Diagnostics Inc., the technology will be tested by an international clinical trial starting in early 2018.
“Really, the focus is trying to personalize health care …,” he said.
“We know that they work on some patients and not on others. The RNA Disruption Assay was developed as a chemo response tool, and so far the data strongly suggests we can predict early in chemotherapy, whether chemo is working.
“If it isn’t working, probably the approach would be to discontinue therapy.”
Other medical research being done at HSNRI:
• A new anti-cancer drug discovered by Dr. Hoyun Lee (in collaboration with Dr. Piyush Trivedi in India).
• A study on the link between radon and cancer by Dr. Leslie Sutherland.
• McElhaney’s (she’s a geriatrician by training) work in developing a better flu vaccine for seniors and the 48/5 intervention, addressing five key areas (delirium, drugs, mobility, nutrition, elimination) within 48 hours of seniors’ hospital admission to improve outcomes.
• Using text messaging to assist adolescents with cystic fibrosis to schedule follow-up appointments (principal investigator Dr. Gautam Kumar and co-investigator Dr. Deepa Jeevanantham).
McElhaney said when she has out-of-town guests visiting HSNRI’s new home, they’re surprised at the quality of research being done here.
Sudburians and northerners should be proud, especially since they directly fund some of the work being done at HSNRI through Northern Cancer Foundation fundraisers, she said.
“To have this small research institute make it into the Top 40 research hospitals in Canada in the last few years, that’s something people should be, I think, proud of,” McElhaney said.
Besides the potential health benefits of research breakthroughs, there are other spinoff benefits.
One is economic. “These are high-end jobs that we’re generating here…,” McElhaney said.
“The return on the investment actually in terms of what we can expect over the long term is about 3:1. Every dollar we invest in research, we get three more coming into the community.”
Parissenti said the research institute brings in placement students from the high school level up and is educating the next generation of researchers.
“One of my PhD students, he now has a faculty position in New York,” he said.
“I just recently was looking at his CV, and oh boy, is he doing well. I’m looking at his CV in a jealous manner. He trained here.”
Parissenti and McElhaney are not only proud of HSNRI, they are proud of their community and enjoy its lifestyle.
McElhaney, a world-renowned expert in seniors’ care, moved to Greater Sudbury from Vancouver five years ago.
“I lived in Vancouver,” she said. “Driving in that city is just a nightmare. Now I live on a lake, and I have a 15-minute drive to work.”
Parissenti, who did part of his training at Harvard Medical School, said he doesn’t consider working at HSNRI “settling.” He said it’s actually easier to push your own research agenda and do pioneering work at a smaller facility.
“I quite seriously say I would do this job anyway if I weren’t paid, but I’m happy to be paid,” Parissenti said.