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Senator Kelvin Ogilvie in Cheverie, Nova Scotia, June 8, 2012. He will be head of a senate committee looking into the prescription drug industry.PAUL DARROW

In the late 1970s, three decades before he was named to the Senate, Kelvin Ogilvie invented a drug that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.The medication, called Ganciclovir, subdues a common herpes virus that can be deadly in people with weakened immune systems, including patients with HIV/AIDS and organ transplant recipients. Dr. Ogilvie patented the drug and helped bring it to market, an achievement that gives him credibility now that he is a politician probing a troubling trend in drug development in Canada.

There has been a significant drop in the number of trials conducted in Canada in recent years, as companies go elsewhere to test the effectiveness of new compounds in large-scale, expensive experiments. Appointed to the red chamber by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2009, Dr. Ogilvie chairs a committee that has been hearing from research centres and pharmaceutical companies about the decline.

"It is a significant economic loss, but it is also a loss in support for medical research teams and a loss for patients," he says. "If drugs are not tested in clinical trials in Canada, it may take much longer for Canadians to benefit from new therapies."

The committee is drafting its report at a time when brand-name pharmaceutical companies are lobbying Ottawa for increased patent protection that would put Canada in line with regulations in Europe. They argue that less competitive intellectual property laws are one reason Canada is losing out on clinical trials.

But the industry is also being criticized for not investing as much on research and development in Canada as they had promised 25 years ago, when patent protection was extended after a bitter political debate. Even former prime minister Brian Mulroney, seen as an industry champion, challenged the drug companies at a dinner they organized this week.

"Governments have a right to expect more from you," he said.

Clinical trials make up a large portion of the brand-name pharmaceutical industry's R&D spending and account for 75 per cent of the $1.3-billion it invested in Canada in 2010.

But over all, fewer trials are being done here. One report found that applications to test non-generic drugs in clinical trials decreased from 777 to 596 between 2006 and 2010. It is part of a global shift, with Asia, Eastern Europe, Australia and New Zealand making gains at the expense of North America, Western Europe and Latin America.

Russell Williams, the president of Rx&D, the brand-name manufacturer's industry association, says the competition for clinical trials is fierce. "Our Canadian CEOs compete against other jurisdictions within their same companies," he says.

Dr. Ogilvie and other members of the Senate's Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology are looking at why other countries are better at attracting trials than Canada. There are many factors involved, some administrative, others involving public policy.

For example, in some cases companies have to deal with dozens of different research ethics boards across the country, Dr. Ogilvie says. Other nations have centralized offices to guide firms through the complicated process of setting up a clinical trial and getting the required approvals.

The committee also plans to address other issues around prescription drugs, including how to better monitor new medications after they have been approved.

Dr. Ogilvie is new to politics, and says he wasn't active in the Conservative Party before he was named to the Senate. He grew up in rural Nova Scotia and started his studies in a two-room schoolhouse. During his long career, he served as the president of Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. and made many significant scientific advances. Clinical trials have become more challenging to design since his day, he says, in part because scientists now know that many diseases are much more complicated than they originally suspected.

"I was actually able to take my own idea and build a molecule and see it all the way through to success," he says. "… It was an enormously satisfying achievement."