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Ben Alman Research and Science Lecture: “49”

Ben Alman
Ben Alman

Ben Alman returned to Toronto on January 9th, 2015 to give the Ben Alman Research and Science lecture at UHN. As many readers know, Dr. Alman is the former Chair of the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery and Vice-Chair of Research in the Department of Surgery at the University of Toronto. He was recruited to Duke University to Chair their Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in 2013. However, he still maintains a significant presence in Toronto with a research laboratory at the SickKids Research Institute.

His intriguing title aptly focused the audience on the objectives of the talk: comparing and contrasting the differences between research and innovation funding north and south of the 49th parallel. After a brief history and geography lesson outlining the establishment and preservation of the 49th parallel, Dr. Alman highlighted how, as an Americanadian (an individual who is legally allowed to work in both countries), he is ideally positioned to evaluate differences in research and innovation funding in Canada and America. Surprisingly, researchers in both Canada and the US feel that the grass appears greener on the other side of the border. In reality, both countries have advantages and disadvantages when it comes to research and innovation funding.

He provided an excellent tour of his research from his original work on desmoid cell tumours through to the establishment of ScarX Therapeutics with the help of MaRS innovation. His initial experiments on desmoid cell tumours led to identifying beta-catenin as a protein instrumental in hypertrophic scan formation. Further analysis led to the identification of Nefopam, a non-opioid analgesic, as a therapeutic that decreases beta-catenin levels thereby decreasing scar formation. With this discovery, Dr. Alman began the process to take Nefopam to market (through MARS) and established ScarX Therapeutics with the end goal of a topical product that could reduce scar hypertrophy.

With his move to Duke in 2013, Dr. Alman is investigating molecules and proteins produced by macrophages that may help fractures heal quicker in the elderly. Despite slow progress in obtaining internal grant funding at Duke, the university has a streamlined process to establish external funding from the many industryacademic collaborations in the local area.

Dr. Alman then addressed the differences between research and innovation funding north and south of the border. The NIH has approximately 30 times the amount of funds available for grants compared to the CIHR. Dr. Alman argued that this is a grossly inflated figure with the actual amount available for research almost identical on a per capita basis. He provided his own grant examples to demonstrate that, after indirect costs and salaries, his NIH grants provided US$350 000 for research per year compared to his CIHR grants that provide C$380 000 per year. Like the CIHR, the NIH has curtailed growth in research fund allocation, with levels of research funding plateauing approximately 5 years ago in both countries. He concluded that the grass was not always greener on the other side.

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Ben Alman illustrates the 49th parallel

James Rutka asked why different institutions withheld different indirect costs from NIH grants. Dr Alman replied that these are mainly based on fixed costs that differ due to local market conditions such as real estate costs, minimum wage, and utilities.

Michael Fehlings asked if we needed to focus on producing surgeon scientists with specific skills in translational medicine. Ben felt that rather than churning out more surgeons who wanted to isolate themselves as clinical epidemiologists or basic scientists, we needed to encourage the next generation of surgeon scientists to take the lead in solving clinical problems by collaborating with dedicated scientists at the lab bench, and those involved in clinical trials that will ultimately lead to clinical solutions.

Mark Camp, Orthopaedic Surgeon,
Hospital for Sick Children
Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery,
University of Toront

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