Twenty-five per cent of Canadians will suffer from a brain disorder at some point in their lifetime, and that number continues to grow. In Ontario alone, brain disease costs $39 billion to the economy every year. What can we do to break the cycle?
That’s precisely the question world-leading neuroscience researchers asked themselves when they met in 2009 to explore Ontario’s role in the burgeoning field of neurosciences. Recent advances in brain research have brought us to the threshold of developing treatments — and potential cures — for the brain disorders that have plagued humankind for centuries. Given Ontario’s position at the forefront of neuroscience discovery, the Ontario Brain Institute (OBI) was established in November 2010 to catalyze translational brain research. The OBI seeks to maximize the impact of neuroscience through supporting translational research, commercialization, and health informatics with the goal of improving the lives of people with neurological disorders and mental illness.
“The brain has a fundamental impact on our society,” says Dr. Donald Stuss, president and Scientific Director of OBI. “Brain dysfunction of any type has an enormous influence on quality of life and productivity. To start, we’re looking at how we can minimize brain dysfunction and treat brain disease more effectively. Long-term, we want to find ways to maximize brain function and intervene early, so brain disease is prevented altogether.”
At the core of OBI’s current research agenda are its Integrated Discovery System (IDS) projects — Ontario-wide initiatives that combine institutions, researchers, clinicians, industry partners and patient advocacy groups to focus on key disorders of the brain.
Meetings last year with more than 250 brain researchers in universities and hospitals across Ontario brought seven priority research areas to the forefront: addiction, neurodevelopmental disorders including autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy, depression, epilepsy, neurodegeneration and traumatic brain injury. The OBI has begun supporting the implementation of IDS projects relating to epilepsy, autism/ADHD, and cerebral palsy, and will continue to support the development of the four remaining priority areas.
The Epilepsy Discovery Project is focused on building an understanding of drug-resistant epilepsy. Thirty per cent of those living with epilepsy experience seizures that cannot be controlled by drugs. This project will examine innovative approaches for the diagnosis and treatment of these seizures, including new drug therapies, diet, surgery and deep brain stimulation.
The Province of Ontario Neurodevelopmental Disorders (POND) project is creating the first Canadian clinical trials network for children with neurodevelopmental disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Intellectual Disability, which affect more than 120,000 children and youth in Ontario. This project will provide a platform for testing promising new interventions, including customized treatment based on an individual’s genetic profile.
The Cerebral Palsy Network (CP-NET) is developing better treatments for hemiplegic cerebral palsy, a disorder caused by stroke during or shortly after birth. Cerebral palsy affects one in every 300 individuals. CP-NET will create a registry of children that enables the identification of risk factors and genetic predispositions for stroke that can form the basis for early interventions, and help improve patient outcomes in rehabilitation therapy by developing virtual reality-based devices and stem cell therapies.
Together, these three IDS projects support more than 80 research positions, improved diagnoses and treatments, and the commercialization of important products that will help improve the brain health of Ontarians.
Commercialization is a critical step in translating research ideas into better patient care. The OBI has developed “innovation teams” composed of researchers, clinicians, industry partners and patients to ensure that OBI’s IDS research will be translated quickly into better diagnostics, treatments and care for Ontarians with brain disorders.
“By bringing together researchers and front-line care providers with industry partners early on, we’re ensuring we have everyone at the table that has a stake in driving the brain research agenda forward,” says Dr. Stuss. “It’s leading to more fulsome innovation, and a quicker turnaround of research from bench to bedside.”
For the OBI, partnerships are at the root of this translation. One key example is the Ontario-Israel Brain Initiative, which was started in 2011. This initiative involves collaboration between the OBI, Israel Brain Technologies and the Canada-Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation. Closely allied with this developing relationship is Ontario’s Health Technology Exchange, which recently visited Israel and met with approximately 40 companies to promote Ontario’s neurotechnology strengths, and enable company-to-company collaborations between Ontario and Israel.
“Overall, there is great enthusiasm from both countries for collaboration,” says Dr. Stuss. “Areas of interest include brain cancer therapy, stem cell production, scale-up, robotic neurosurgery and deep brain stimulation. We’re confident this will be a fruitful area of international partnership that will benefit brain research on a global scale.”
One of OBI’s game changers is a new informatics platform called the Brain Centre for Ontario Data Exploration (Brain-CODE). Brain-CODE was developed in collaboration with hospitals, universities and informatics agencies across Ontario and leverages more than $200 million in existing infrastructure. It will allow researchers and clinicians to upload, store and access their research data centrally, making comparisons possible for the first time between information from diverse institutions, patient populations and a range of neurological disorders and diseases.
“This type of multi-dimensional platform is largely unprecedented in the neurosciences,” says Dr. Stuss. “Brain-CODE has the potential to transform the way we research and treat brain disorders and diseases. Data will be combined in a way that helps us understand patterns across diseases, so we can start to understand the causes of disease, the relationships between diseases, and why some individuals respond to treatment, while others do not. It will also serve as an invaluable tool for clinical trials, allowing us to rapidly recruit patients with similar characteristics and giving us a conduit to resolve our new hypotheses about brain disease with effective, patient-centred interventions. We are particularly pleased to have the oversight of the Ontario Privacy Commission to ensure maximum security and patient confidentiality.”
Knowledge translation and capacity building are central to OBI’s model of integrated research and commercialization arm. OBI’s projects are designed from the outset to enable a streamlined flow of knowledge between researchers, industry, clinicians and patients by ensuring all of these groups help shape research from the start.
The OBI’s Experiential Education Initiative (EEI) is aimed at developing the entrepreneurial and management skills of neuroscientists in Ontario. As the first program launched under the banner of EEI, OBI Entrepreneurs is a collaboration with the Ontario Centres of Excellence that will encourage Ontario’s neuroscientists to take their research to market. The program includes targeted training from OBI, with the support of regional mentorship networks.
“Once again, outreach and impact is maximized by partnerships,” says Dr. Stuss. “Our ultimate goal is to get the products of brain research into the hands of health-care providers and patients, so Ontarians receive better treatment and gain a better quality of life. In the process, we’re creating a new system of research that involves industry and patient advocacy early in the process, and empowers our strong neuroscience core to develop a sustainable, commercial structure for future innovation and discovery.”
David Bogart is director of Research Programs and Industry Relations at OBI.