Research Report 2018

Paul Rochon

What makes Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI) unique?

Women’s College Hospital (WCH) has been innovating and tackling challenges in healthcare for over 100 years, and what makes us unique is that we have one of the only research institutes worldwide that focuses on the health of women. Our scientists are conducting research with a sex and gender lens to understand the unique physiological differences between men and women and how factors like community support, employment, income, food and housing stability impact their health. By working with people in the community and providers on the front line, they are tackling the most pressing issues in healthcare today and inspiring real innovations in patient care, policy and health system solutions, locally and globally.

Not only is our research focused on the health of women, many of our scientists and researchers are women. Amidst evidence that a lack of women in science has led to a gender bias affecting research outcomes, we are committed to inspiring the next generation of female scientists who will help improve health outcomes for all.

What are some of the key accomplishments that have been made at WCRI?

Some of the most incredible accomplishments at WCRI have been based on leveraging decades of research from our scientists. An example of this is the Familial Breast Cancer Research Unit which has been conducting research on hereditary cancer for over 20 years. What started with some simple questions and a data set, has now become the source of hundreds of publications and has changed guidelines for individuals who are at risk for hereditary cancers associated with a BRCA mutation.

Our world-class experts in diabetes, postpartum depression, aging and more are working on common fundamental healthcare challenges, preventing issues before they start to help conserve already limited resources in our health system. We’re using digital health tools in research to help connect with patients in hard-to-reach populations including a study on the genetics of postpartum depression using an iPhone app to collect data. For women living with HIV, new guidelines developed at WCRI on pregnancy planning for HIV-positive patients have increased understanding about HIV transmission, allowing patients to make the choices that are best for them and their families.

Many of the scientists at WCRI are also clinicians. How does this dual role help improve clinical practice and policy changes across the healthcare system?

As clinicians, our scientists see the issues that patients are facing first-hand in their clinical practices. These experiences help our scientists design effective prevention and treatment strategies, address gaps in care and improve patient experiences and outcomes. At WCRI, we’re fortunate to have a range of clinical expertise within our team including physicians, nurses and pharmacists. Each of these health disciplines brings a unique perspective on the issues that currently exist within our healthcare system. Our clinician-scientists are able to translate their research discoveries into treatments and care that can be implemented within their own practice to improve the health outcomes of their patients.

Why do you believe it’s important to conduct health research that takes sex and gender into account?

Until the 1990s, women were not included in most healthcare and medical research studies. Women make up more than half of the population, which means we are missing half of the story when looking into treatments and health outcomes without considering women’s unique needs. It’s often assumed that studies that only consider outcomes based on men can be extrapolated and applied to women, but this leads to a large gap in important information about differences between the two. For example, many prescription drug therapies and treatment protocols still used today have been disproportionately studied on men. As a result, women of all ages may experience prevalent side effects because of improper dosage. When you start to take sex and gender into account in research, then you start to see everything in a different way and can address the very simple, but fundamental needs of both women and men – making research even more relevant.

WCRI is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto and is a teaching hospital. What is the importance of partnerships in improving healthcare research?

These partnerships are essential to ensuring the success of our research institute and provide us with the opportunity to come together to collaborate and share ideas and learnings. All of our scientists hold academic appointments at the University of Toronto, recognized as one of the world’s top research-intensive universities. This affiliation allows our scientists to supervise and mentor graduate students and trainees who will grow into the future leaders of health research. In addition, our partnerships with the Toronto Academic Health Science Network (TAHSN) and Council of Academic Hospitals of Ontario (CAHO) communities have also grown, increasing collaboration by bringing together academic health centres from across the province. By engaging with these partner organizations, we can increase the spread and impact of our research efforts beyond the walls of our hospital to benefit more patients.

What are some of the changes you hope to see in the future within the field of research?

I think it’s very important for organizations to recognize the importance of investing in people, especially starting at the trainee level. We often don’t appreciate the time it takes to mentor these early-career scientists. We need to support these individuals who have the ability and drive, and will carry out the fundamental research that underpins everything we do at WCH. At WCRI, we are actively engaged in providing support to our scientists, students and trainees at all career stages. Through our Summer Student Research Program, we are able to reach out to undergraduate students in the formative stages of their education to inspire and encourage them to pursue a career in research.

We also need to ensure that we encourage more women and people from diverse backgrounds to enter the research and science fields, because if we are to create a more equitable, healthier world we must push for equity and better representation in our own organizations to inform these changes.