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Patients’ needs inform the priorities of researchers in the Toronto Academic Health Science Network, improving care at every hospital in the GTA (including St. Michael’s Hospital, pictured here), across Ontario and around the world.EDUARDO LIMA, UNITY HEALTH TORONTO

The Toronto Academic Health Science Network is driving discovery in health care

From faster identification of people at risk of diabetes to more effective pain management, researchers at the Toronto Academic Health Science Network (TAHSN) are inventing better treatments and improving health care and its delivery.

Connecting 14 globally recognized academic hospitals throughout the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and anchored by the research powerhouse of the University of Toronto, TAHSN drives discovery and turns research into new therapies, treatments and companies at a speed and scale that matches the most successful life sciences research hubs in the world. Patients’ needs inform the priorities of researchers in the network, improving care at every hospital in the GTA, across Ontario and around the world.

“We are extremely fortunate in this region to have the calibre of people and the research infrastructure of the TAHSN network. This work gives patients access to the latest therapies and enables clinicians to benefit from the latest knowledge,” says Timothy Chan, Canada Research Chair in Novel Optimization and Analytics in Health, and associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives at the University of Toronto.

“Governments understand the importance of health to a country’s security and economy and are increasingly relying on our hospital researchers to identify new treatments and efficient ways to ensure they reach patients,” he says.

The hub’s location in the GTA supports its growth and success. Top talent dedicated to making a difference work with emerging technologies, including machine learning and artificial intelligence, to develop groundbreaking treatments. Indeed, fields such as precision and regenerative medicine, or genomics, which leverage new technologies, are among the promising approaches to life sciences emerging from the TAHSN ecosystem.

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Timothy Chan is Canada Research Chair in Novel Optimization and Analytics in Health, and associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives at the University of Toronto.Supplied

At the same time, global competition for the talent and capital that drive discoveries in life sciences is intense, say researchers within the TAHSN network. Similar U.S. life sciences hubs anchored by Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities, for example, receive far more public investment, according to a recent report from Shift Health, a life sciences strategy consultancy.

A strong life sciences network such as TAHSN helps the region and Ontario recruit people and investments and creates made-in-Canada treatments and companies. More than 2,900 scientists are part of the TAHSN network and working in hospital-based research institutes. According to its latest impact report, the network spends more than $3-billion annually on research.

“This network brings together a huge critical mass of world-class, leading clinicians and researchers that span all of medicine. And that’s hard to find anywhere else,” Chan says.

When it comes to pushing the frontiers of medicine, each of Ontario’s major hospitals may have a specialization, such as oncology. “But when you bring the entire network together, we have a collective excellence across all of health research that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Now we’ve got a network of excellence, where all of the individual pieces of this network have a spike of expertise,” Chan says.

Data that improves patient outcomes

An example of the innovation made possible by the hospital network’s ecosystem is GEMINI. The GEMINI research network at St. Michael’s Hospital, part of Unity Health Toronto, deploys a data and analytics platform that leverages the rich information in hospital computer records to generate insights about how health care is delivered, informing changes that improve the patient experience while supporting the system.

Over the past five years, the project has grown from a TAHSN-based innovation to an initiative that is helping the Government of Ontario improve health care at hospitals across the province.

The GEMINI project currently holds anonymized data from more than 30 Ontario hospitals and it’s growing rapidly. Data analysis methods are shared across TAHSN and GEMINI’s other partner hospitals in the province, with AI and machine learning technologies delivering valuable insights.

“There’s a pressing need for us to reshape health care in Canada,” says Dr. Amol Verma, a general internist at St. Michael’s Hospital who co-founded GEMINI with Dr. Fahad Razak, and is Temerty Professor in AI Research and Education in Medicine at U of T.

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Dr. Amol Verma is a general internist at St. Michael’s Hospital, co-founder of GEMINI, and Temerty Professor in AI Research and Education in Medicine at U of T.UNITY HEALTH TORONTO

“One of the great things about innovations like GEMINI, which is constantly collecting rich data, is the ability to run trials on large, diverse populations and create a really important opportunity to make sure our evidence base in medicine and health care applies to many more people,” says Dr. Razak, a general internist at St. Michael’s Hospital, associate professor at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation (IHPME) at U of T, and Canada Research Chair in Data Informed Healthcare Improvement.

This network brings together a huge critical mass of world-class, leading clinicians and researchers that span all of medicine. And that’s hard to find anywhere else.

Timothy Chan, Canada Research Chair in Novel Optimization and Analytics in Health, and associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives, University of Toronto

“There’s no better place in terms of the diversity of the people who are served by our health care system and the inclusiveness of the health care system, but also the talents to use data in a cutting-edge way,” he says.

For instance, shared data in the GEMINI platform is improving hospitals’ ability to identify cases of hospital-acquired delirium, a condition that can double mortality rates and extend hospital stays. Delirium is estimated to affect up to 30 per cent of hospitalized medical patients, but routine quality measurement in hospitals captures only one in four cases.

Better identification of delirium allows for early interventions that can save costs and reduce the time patients spend in hospital. GEMINI researchers worked with engineering researchers at the University of Toronto to use AI to identify delirium with a greatly improved accuracy of 90 per cent. The next step is intervening early to reduce delirium rates. “The skills required to work with the GEMINI data set are extensive. Students need more support to encourage them to pursue advanced training,” Dr. Verma says.

Made-in-Canada artificial intelligence that is supporting health care

Hospitals in the TAHSN network also benefit from the technology and talent that has coalesced around the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Funded through the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the Vector Institute trained over 6,300 people in 2022-23 and has more than 700 members in its research community, including in life sciences.

“Access to unique resources like the GEMINI data set allows our graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and interns to access real Ontario health data for AI research and enables them to build the highly specialized, hands-on skills that employers in the hospital and life sciences sector need,” says Roxana Sultan, chief data officer and vice-president of health with the Vector Institute and adjunct professor with IHPME at U of T.

The Vector Institute’s Digital Talent Hub, for example, connects graduating trainees with postings for AI-focused jobs and internships offered by Vector’s sponsor and partner companies, including hospitals and other health-sector organizations. The hub has hosted more than 6,000 postings since Vector’s founding in 2017.

Vector also ensures data reflects the country’s population and health needs. In the past, Canadian AI practitioners often used health databases developed in other countries.

“The unique differentiator with GEMINI is that its data is not only optimized for AI but is also very representative of Ontario’s highly diverse populations,” she says. “This means that AI models trained using GEMINI data can have greater relevance and applicability in the Canadian context, requiring less retraining and fine-tuning to adapt to any individual site,” Sultan says.

Support needed for future talent

“I feel like we are a unique organization where people have that startup mentality and are highly motivated,”says Denise Mak, director of data science and innovation with GEMINI. “For me, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with this type of research group.”

A key focus of the work is standardizing and interpreting data from across the network, turning it into a pool of high-quality, anonymized data to share with researchers. “That’s the work that we do behind the scenes,” she says. “That’s the challenge and the excitement.”

Some members of Mak’s team have worked in technology, while others come from academia and universities. “Everyone comes from different backgrounds with a different appreciation of how to interpret information,” Mak says. “It’s made us a stronger team to have this diverse, multidisciplinary group of people from engineers to statisticians to computer scientists. We all learn from each other.”

With almost 14,000 students studying life sciences and medicine at the University of Toronto, the network has a rich pool of talent to draw on. At the same time, the GTA has a lower proportion of graduates with master’s degrees and PhDs in science and engineering than other leading North American hubs, according to the study by Shift Health.

“GEMINI’s work appeals to people who want to make a difference to patients and the health care system,” Mak says. “We have been able to draw on highly skilled people for our team.”

The future of health care delivery

GEMINI shows how training, technology and commitment by researchers are making a tangible difference in the quality of patient care and enabling hospitals to respond to the needs of a growing population.

“We believe strongly in the importance of innovation and open science, and that in and of itself can be a catalyst for economic growth and supporting our health system,” Dr. Verma says. “This translates directly to improved patient outcomes.”

Many more projects are in the pipeline. Data from GEMINI is accessible to more than 200 researchers, and over 100 projects ranging from research on dementia to hormone therapies and cancer care are approved, with results to be shared across the system.

To find out more about research innovation at the Toronto Academic Health Science Network, visit www.tahsn.ca.


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