Institutional Gains on Pain

Pain Day at McGill University thankfully doesn't live up to its name.

Mar 28, 2005
Steve Mirsky(smirsky@the-scientist.com)
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Courtesy of McGill University

Pain Day at McGill University thankfully doesn't live up to its name. About 75 pain researchers, from McGill's Centre for Research on Pain and the surrounding area came together in January for the ninth annual Pain Day, a chance for Montreal's burgeoning pain research community to schmooze, share results, and hatch collaborations. McGill, already famous as the home of the gate-control theory co-founder, Ronald Melzack, has significantly upped its pain-related efforts in the past few years. Coupled with increasingly research-friendly policies in the country, the institution has begun to see a reversal of the drain on Canadian talent that was so noticeable little more than a decade ago. The university recruited researchers within Canada as well as from Spain, Israel, and the United States. The Quebec Pain Research Initiative (QPRI) was launched in 2000 in an attempt to coordinate pain research efforts throughout the province. And in January 2003, McGill formally created the Centre for Research on Pain, naming Catherine Bushnell the first director. The center now includes 30 full and 17 associate members, some of whom double as QPRI members.

McGill's center, however, still has no shared facility. Members are scattered over the campus with some small concentrations. "It's been my experience that collaborations among researchers are based on the 100-foot and one-story rule," says center member Gary Bennett. "You collaborate if you're within 100 horizontal feet or no more than one story vertically." Finding or creating a true physical home for the center is therefore a priority. Until then, events like Pain Day, biweekly journal clubs, and monthly guest speakers and patient presentations offer some structure and a sense of community.

Bennett, who studies painful peripheral neuropathies, left Hahnemann University in Philadelphia for McGill in 2001. He had also been chief of the National Institutes of Health's Neuropathic Pain and Pain Measurement Section. "I could see that in a very short time, there would be more world-class pain research here than anywhere in the world," he says, also noting the Canada Research Chairs Program as a big draw. In this program, the federal government supports researcher salary and offers a start-up package. "The university loves it – it just had to find me a desk and a chair."

In the past, the sheer number of large US institutions, with big faculties and funding opportunities, probably made diffusion south inevitable. But Canada reversed the gradient with major funding initiatives of its own. Jeff Mogil is a product of the drain and its reversal. The Toronto native left to do his doctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and took a faculty position at the University of Illinois, where there was one other pain researcher. The density of pain people at McGill became an attraction: "I wasn't specifically trying to move back to Canada," says Mogil, who studies genetic and environmental factors related to pain sensitivity. "But I decided I needed to be with other pain researchers."

This critical mass is especially attractive to Celeste Johnston, an expert in children's pain and director of the research unit at McGill's School of Nursing. "I would never come in contact with the basic scientists – the neuropsych people, the pharm people, the physiology people – if not for the center," she says. "It gives me a much broader perspective."

Such a draw has reached beyond North America. Visceral pain expert Fernando Cervero left the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares in Madrid in 2002 to become the director of the center's Anesthesia Research Unit. Yoram Shir, who had been at the Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem and more recently on sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, also came in 2002 to run Montreal General Hospital's pain center.

Canada's lack of indirect costs also makes it attractive for researchers. Canadian institutions negotiate directly with funding agencies for large grants that go to their operating budgets. Researchers keep the full amounts of their individual research grants instead of diverting a percentage to the institution.

Therefore, Pharma has taken an interest in the expanding intellectual capital in the area. "Astra[Zeneca] located a pain research institute in Montreal because of the strength here in pain research," says Astra Chief Scientist Andy Dray, also an associate member of the pain center. In December, Astra announced a 5-year, $2.5 million award to the center.

In addition to moving into a new home, the center's to-do list features recruitment. "We're in a position to recruit a senior person as the new director," says current director, Bushnell, who says she's itching to go back to being a full-time scientist. "We're going to bring in two new senior people and two new junior hires. We're arguably the best pain research group in the world, and we're growing."