Last year alone, Toronto welcomed J&J as it launched JLABS outside the United States for the first time, and Celgene established a strong strategic presence, also in Toronto. Add to it Bayer’s recent decision to include Ontario’s Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine and University Health Network as partners in their strategic commitment to cell-based therapy (via a new company called BlueRock) and EVOTEC’s establishment of a Canadian presence via a new partnership with MaRS Innovation, and we have the scent of some serious international clustering dynamics in the air.
The discussion still ensues around how challenging it is to establish interactions between the public and the private sector, i.e. between governments and the health care industry. However, the long list of partnerships entered in the past year suggests that this relationship has taken a very strong turn in a positive direction. Part of the reason is the need to establish a paradigm shift from a strictly blockbuster approach to a more precision medicine-driven attitude by industry leaders. An exemplary demonstration of addressing unmet medical needs is the recent decision made by Celgene to commit to the clinical development of Merizomib, a drug being developed by Toronto-based Triphase for the treatment of glioblastoma, a deadly malignancy with very few options for a cure. At the time of acquisition, Celgene’s executives stated that the decision is consistent with the deep commitment and passion for the patients and their urgent needs. The drug is now in fast track development in Canada, the US, and Europe. This is just one of growing number of examples illustrating that industry is rapidly adjusting to patients’ needs regardless of market size.
Interactions with IBM’s Watson group as well as extensive dialogue with big pharma (Genentech/Roche, Medimmune/Astra Zeneca, and Merck, to mention a few) indicate that Canada is viewed as offering a fertile landscape in this area of precision medicine. The Canadian approach, which is essentially a longitudinal electronic medical record-based approach, offers one of the most comprehensive and user-friendly infrastructures on a global scale. Recently, the federal government and several provinces announced a new initiative of data mining and processing by virtue of artificial intelligence with the expectation that AI will revolutionize the handling of Big Data in healthcare, among other sectors. The Vector Institute at the University of Toronto, with support from the private sector (Google, Telus, and Shopify among others) as well as the AI Institute at University of Alberta and the MILA (University of Montreal) are already reviewing ways of addressing the prospects of precision medicine.
The opportunity for Canada is expected to grow significantly over the next few years due to unprecedented pressures on healthcare systems worldwide. Global industry partners are recognizing Canada’s advantages in the academic sector and will continue to look to us for the development of new and disruptive technologies. In an era where information/communication technologies are becoming so impactful on all aspects of life, healthcare strategies have to be adjusted as well; drug discovery, molecular diagnostics as well as medical technologies are already influenced by it. Canada has already established strong leadership in certain areas and the commitment of the federal government, as well as the Ontario provincial government as reflected in the recently announced budgets, suggest that there is a strong commitment to healthcare innovation but a lot more needs to be done so that our leadership position is preserved and we continue to be an attractive partnering opportunity for global leaders.
As an example, the dialogue between global corporations and the regulators at all government levels requires streamlining so that innovative technologies get the right level of attention. There are useful models in the US and the UK which can be easily assessed in terms of the benefits that accrue to both the private and public sectors when a more modern approach is utilized.
Such a dialogue paid off over the last four decades in the Bay area and in the Boston area where the interaction between the public and the private sector has always been one of win-win. Canada could do even better!
To conclude, a quote from Jeffrey S. Flier, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard University in a lecture delivered at the 2013 Healthcare Innovation Forum:
We need approaches to the solutions that aren’t just arithmetic and additive but are in some sense logarithmic. This will require us to reach across historic boundaries and unlock the potential of collaboration across the usual disciplines.
Rafi Hofstein is president and CEO MaRS Innovation