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Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni made world news with his experimental treatment for MS, which immediately prompted calls for studies. (Alessandro Vincenzi/Alessandro Vincenzi/The Globe and Mail)
Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni made world news with his experimental treatment for MS, which immediately prompted calls for studies. (Alessandro Vincenzi/Alessandro Vincenzi/The Globe and Mail)

Paul Taylor's Small Doses

The Obama effect and the year in medicine Add to ...

When Barack Obama was sworn in as U.S. President in January, many top Canadian scientists feared they would soon be hearing a great sucking sound as research resources and talent were drawn back to the United States.

After all, Canada had indirectly benefited from some of the restrictive science policies of the George W. Bush administration, such as federal funding curbs on stem-cell research. Canada, by contrast, seemed like a friendlier place to do science. Better still, many Canadian scientists had enjoyed hefty increases in their research grants in the early part of the decade.

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Now the tables have turned. Mr. Obama declared that science is "essential" for America's continued health, security and prosperity. His economic-stimulus package included $10-billion (U.S.) for medical research.

At about the same time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government trimmed the budgets of three granting agencies that fund university-based research - the type of work that can potentially generate major discoveries and groundbreaking innovations. A lot of researchers are skeptical of the Canadian government's commitment to science, even though Ottawa has pledged more money for university infrastructure and equipment. The money, some researchers argue, should be going to "brains not bricks."

The government's credibility took another hit when Gary Goodyear, the federal minister responsible for science and technology, declined to answer a question about whether he believes in evolution, during an interview with The Globe and Mail's science reporter Anne McIlroy. Mr. Goodyear, a chiropractor by training, later said he did believe in evolution but the remarks he made to clarify his position were so ambiguous that experts in developmental biology wondered whether he understood the concept.

Some high-profile scientists - including one of Canada's leading AIDS researchers, Rafick-Pierre Sékaly of the University of Montreal - have already begun to shift their research operations south of the border.

But it's far from an exodus, and Canada continues to attract U.S. investment. Californian and Canadian officials recently announced a $40-million joint venture in stem-cell research.

As this year draws to a close, it's not yet clear that the United States has regained its competitive edge.

"Obama is certainly pro-research and pro-science," said Gordon Keller, a stem-cell biologist and director of Toronto's McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine.

"But he is facing trillion-plus-dollar deficits and trying to get health care off the ground. I am not sure how much money there will be for … increased long-term funding for National Institutes of Health," which finances a substantial chunk of medical research in the United States.

Another factor in Canada's continued favour is government funding for the health-care system and universities, which provides many researchers with their core salaries, said John Dick, a senior scientist at the University Health Network in Toronto. "It's not a life and death situation if you lose your grant - you're are not out of a job the next month," he explained. And that's not necessarily the case in the United States.

The following is a wrap-up of some of the year's medical highlights, low points and emerging trends to watch in 2010.

Lessons from a pandemic

The H1N1 influenza pandemic turned out to be not as bad as some were expecting.

It's impossible to calculate the severity of the outbreak, because the vast majority of cases never come to the attention of public health officials. But using the best available evidence from the United States, researchers at Harvard's School of Public Health and the U.K.'s Medical Research Council, have come up with two estimates.

Under one set of data and assumptions, they concluded 1.44 per cent of people with H1N1 symptoms were hospitalized and 0.048 per cent died. Under another set, 0.16 per cent were hospitalized and 0.007 per cent died, according to their study published earlier this month in the online journal PLoS Medicine.

That works out to a potential range of 7,800 to 29,000 deaths in the United States from H1N1, compared to the annual flu, which kills 36,000 in that country.

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