By James Martin
“It’s great to be back here on campus,” said the Honourable Greg Rickford, Minister of State (Science and Technology) and a graduate of McGill’s Faculty of Law, this morning in the atrium of the of Bellini Life Sciences Complex. “But, to be honest, before I came here I rushed out to visit a couple of other universities just so I wouldn’t be so obvious about the passion I have for this great university and the place it holds in the academic landscape of this great country.” The occasion was the announcement of Dr. Luda Diatchenko’s appointment as Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Human Pain Genetics. Dr. Diatchenko is McGill’s first appointment under the prestigious, $10 million-plus federal research program.
Luda Diatchenko is recognized as one of the world’s top pain researchers. Diatchenko, who joined the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain this month, came to McGill from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She studies basic molecular and genetic mechanisms of human pain, with the goal of creating personalized pain treatments. With an estimated one in five Canadians suffering from chronic pain — at a cost of some $10 to $15 billion in lost productivity — such new therapies would have huge implications for both quality of life and the economy.
Under the CERC, Diatchenko and her team will receive up to $10 million in federal funding over seven years. That funding will be matched by an additional $20 million from public and private sources, including the government of Quebec, Pfizer Canada and McGill. In addition to those funds, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) will contribute $785,000 for infrastructure necessary for Dr. Diatchenko’s work.
“This funding has helped make Canada a world leader in post-secondary research and in post-secondary research training,” said Minister Rickford. “It is creating the knowledge and highly trained workforce necessary for a prosperous Canada. We’re making these investments because we understand the importance of partnering across sectors: academia, industry, government. As the prime minister has said, science empowers commerce, it creates economic opportunities and, most importantly, it improves the health outcomes and quality of life for Canadians. I’m proud to say that, because of such strong support and partnerships, Canada leads the G7 in higher education research and development expenditure as a share of our economy.”
“Canada has become the top destination for many of the world’s best scientists and researchers,” he added. “And so it is today that we welcome Dr. Luda Diatchenko to our ranks of influential and talented researchers. Her choice to come to Canada is a wonderful endorsement of the innovation ecosystem we are building for the benefit of all Canadians.”
The Government of Canada launched the CERC Program in 2008 as a way to attract, and support, world-renowned researchers working in one of four strategic areas of science and technology: environmental sciences and technologies, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and technologies, and information and communications technologies. Dr. Diatchenko holds the first CERC appointment focused on pain research.
“The Government of Canada deserves recognition for making this research investment, which is both significant and forward-looking,” said Dr. Alain Beaudet, President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and a member of the CERC steering committee, who was also on hand for the announcement. “The CERC program provides researchers with both the means of significantly advancing their research, and the time and resources for mentoring graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for helping them become the next generation of leaders.”
Minister Rickford and Dr. Beaudet joined Dr. Diatchenko onstage, along with Suzanne Fortier, Principal of McGill, Dr. Rose Goldstein, McGill’s VP (Research and International Relations), Gilles G. Patry, President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and Dr. Fernando Cervero, Director of the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain. The audience included Jane Edwards from the Louise and Alan Edwards Foundation and Patrice Roy, Director of R&D at Pfizer Canada.
“How we care for others defines our communities,” noted the CFI’s Gilles Patry. “Dr. Diatchenko’s work will provide solutions and treatments that will help us strengthen our communities. When we care for those around us who are in pain, we all benefit.”
Principal Fortier noted that Dr. Diatchenko is not only McGill’s first CERC, but the first woman researcher to hold a CERC. There are currently 18 CERCs in place at other Canadian universities
“I would like to offer my heartfelt congratulations to Dr. Diatchenko,” said Principal Fortier. “There is a very long and proud history of contributions to the field of pain research at this university, from Ronald Melzack’s creation of the gate control theory in 1971, to Laura Stone and Moshe Szyf’s recent discovery that chronic pain is related to epigenetic changes in the brain. I have no doubt that Dr. Diatchenko’s work will begin the next chapter in that story, as her team generates new discoveries and breakthroughs that will change lives.”
“The creation of the CERC in a very important step forward for people suffering from chronic pain,” she added. “The CERC program has brought a world-class scientist to our university but, more than that, it serves as a magnet. It is a magnet for new and expanded partnerships, internally, among departments and faculties. It is a magnet for young researchers to join us. And it is a magnet for partnerships with the industrial sector, with private foundations, with our own very devoted alumni, and others. The CERC program is an investment in our future, and it extends beyond our university to our city, the country and around the world.”
“I feel humble. I feel proud. And I feel very excited,” said Dr. Diatchenko, who is originally in Russia and has degrees from the Moscow Medical University. She moved to the U.S. in the 1990s, working in the biotech sector before her 10 years as associate professor at UNC. “I’m excited about the enriching environment I’ve found at the Alan Edwards Centre, and by the opportunities provided by the Canadian government to explore basic brain mechanisms of pain reception. With this new funding, we will create a new level academically, and also a new level of treatment.”
On Oct. 3, Dr. Luda Diatchenko will be the keynote speaker at a symposium celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain. For more information on the symposium go here.