Federal budget makes important strides on health research; let’s make sure we get this right

The Bank of Canada recently called Canada’s economic productivity an emergency-level problem. At 72% of U.S. productivity, senior deputy governor Carolyn Rogers said, “You’ve seen those signs that say, ‘In emergency, break glass.’ Well, it’s time to break the glass.” There are some things we do well in Canada. And there are others we need to work on. We do science well – especially health research – our discoveries have led to insulin, mRNA vaccines and stem cell therapies for the treatment of blood cancers, tissue and organ repair. A perennial deficiency is our inability to commercialize scientific discovery – to take innovation out of the lab, create start-ups, and attract the sustained capital to allow novel therapeutics and technologies to succeed and reach the doctor’s offices where they can be accessed by all of us.

We need to fix this. We need to break the glass and act.

Regularly I represent Canada’s Stem Cell Network (SCN) with different groups of talented, experienced people who are all part of our life sciences system. Last week it was with investors, the week before with public policy makers, and next week with scientists. The question I keep asking myself is, why are these groups of people so siloed?  My diagnosis is that our ecosystem is fractured: the scientists, clinicians, patient groups, patent lawyers, venture capitalists, business talent, regulatory and reimbursement experts are all having similar conversations but in separate rooms. Perhaps the recently tabled federal budget along with the Bank of Canada’s message on productivity, presents the call to action we need.

The federal budget presents an opportunity to start working outside of our individual comfort zones. It is good news that funding has been restored for fundamental science – where all innovation begins. The budget also invested in Canada’s talent base by increasing support for those who will be our science and innovation leaders of tomorrow. These are critical investments in a public good and the future of our nation.

There are other budget commitments we need to seize upon. For example, the creation of an Advisory Council on Science and Innovation, to be comprised of academic, industry and not for profit representatives, charged with creating a national science and innovation strategy. We need this. If done well, this work will align all the various health and research-based federal strategies for more effective streamlining and clear direction.

Another is starting a conversation under the leadership of former Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz to explore ways to catalyze greater domestic investment by Canada’s pension funds into Canadian innovations and companies. This is a controversial idea, however by many measures our science and its outputs are as good as any, so why don’t we sufficiently invest in them?

The budget also commits to reviewing its procurement system to ensure that small and medium sized businesses and innovative firms can better leverage government contracts to help them scale up. Given Canada’s traditionally risk adverse investment climate, this could be valuable for life science companies that are able to attract investment. Just in the stem cell and regenerative medicine space there are approximately 75 biotechs located across the country. The top 10 companies, including SCN supported Morphocell, Satellos and Aspect Biosystems, have leveraged well over $200M USD in private capital. To maintain or grow those investments we need receptors who will purchase and deploy their cutting-edge therapies – therapies that will change the trajectory of a patient’s life. As such, it would be appropriate to see more Canadian buyers doing the purchasing and helping to get these leading-edge products to Canadians.

When new treatments or medicines are clinically tested and commercialized in Canada, it means Canadian patients get access first. Shockingly, only 1 in 5 new medical therapies developed outside of Canada ever get here. We’re simply too small of a market with long approval and adoption timelines for international companies to launch here first.  So, getting our science and innovation regime right won’t just fuel Canada’s economy – it will save Canadian lives.

With governments again paying attention to science, we have an opportunity. Let’s create that whole-system pipeline: from science to innovation, to investment and commercialization, to adoption and procurement. This not only helps the long-term productivity of the Canadian economy. It creates a healthier society. We’ve started a conversation. Let’s finish it together and get it right.

Cate Murray is President & CEO of the Stem Cell Network


 Published in Health Watch on April 25, 2024