Musculoskeletal Health tapped as next Cluster of Research Excellence

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

Millions of bone-and-joint aliment sufferers across Canada, and around the world, will benefit from the collective capabilities of Western’s latest high-profile research investment, university officials said this week.

Announced Monday, Musculoskeletal Health has been named the university’s second Cluster of Research Excellence. The cluster will be supported by a $5-million funding commitment from the university over five years.

“We’re interested in helping our researcher address ‘big questions.’ And big questions almost always occur at the intersection of disciplines,” said Janice Deakin, Western provost and vice-president (academic). “There is nothing more exciting than having people who understand and know the world from different perspectives come together and address a specific problem. You get questions, more questions, and then answers you never would have dreamed of before these people came together.”

Musculoskeletal Health brings together more than 70 researchers across five faculties – Engineering, Health Sciences, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Science and Social Science. Beyond that, the cluster will partner with the Lawson Health Research Institute, London Health Sciences Centre, St. Joseph’s Health Care and Ivey International Centre for Health Innovation, as well as industry and community.

Organizers say the cluster will position Western at the forefront of research affecting bones and joints, including arthritis, osteoporosis and trauma, as well as work-, sport- and exercise-related injuries. Additional support for three Western Research Chairs will allow recruitment of leading researchers in areas of strategic importance for the cluster.

“The concept is to take the already world-class research we have at Western and provide the resources to take them to the next level,” Deakin continued. “When you create the opportunity for a group to have the resources they believe they need to have a higher impact of their world, to be more renowned on the national and international stage, this is an important opportunity.

“This group does basic research, but has a great record in translation. What they do really does have an impact at the bedside and, hopefully, will continue to influence policy and practice in Canada.”

In April 2013, Western named Cognitive Neuroscience as the first research cluster. That area built on established research strengths at the Brain & Mind Institute, which leads efforts to understand consciousness, various cognitive disorders and how our brains see, learn and think about the world.

Musculoskeletal Health’s success is a tribute to the efforts of the team over a long period of time, organizers said. The benefits of this designation will have almost immediate impact.

“Being recognized as a cluster of research excellence will provide a tremendous boost,” said Medical Biophysics and Surgery professor David Holdsworth, the cluster’s scientific director. “We already have outstanding individuals, working in a variety of areas, but the additional resources that will be provided through the cluster funding will allow us to expand our program, recruit new faculty and enhance our training programs – all toward bringing in the best and brightest in the world.

“It may sound cliché, but our competitive advantage is we really are greater than the sum of our parts. Cluster funding will allow us to expand this potential in significant new ways and take us to international prominence.”

Other organizers echoed Holdsworth’s sentiments.

“This has been a real team effort. This isn’t a top-down kind of initiative; it has been a real bottom-up thing,” Physiology and Pharmacology professor Jeff Dixon said. It has really grown because of people in basic research, clinicians, engineers, rehab people, all got together to work on this. It has been a truly rewarding experience.

“Over many years of working together, we have proven ourselves capable of doing excellence science and being able to translate that into impact for health care and society. We’re ready to make this next step.”

That “next step” may benefit millions across the country – and around the world. Organizers point to the fact musculoskeletal conditions cost the Canadian economy more than $22 billion per year. As for the area of study, all say the timing is right for a focused research effort on bone and joint ailments.

“A lot of people just accept musculoskeletal conditions as a normal part of aging that we need to accept and get over,” said Health Sciences professor Trevor Birmingham, a Canada Research Chair in Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation. “In reality, there are lots of things we likely could do that would have an impact on quality of life and the economic impact of these diseases. The cluster will help us bring a bunch of people together to have a big impact.

“Western is well-positioned to tackle these issues. We have a breadth of expertise and infrastructure that can do research others cannot. Now, this cluster helps us assembled these research teams to better answer more complex questions than we could before.”

On campus, the cluster will transform research and innovation in musculoskeletal health through several strategic programs. For example, scholarship support for the nationally recognized Collaborative Training Program in Musculoskeletal Health Research will attract trainees from around the world.

“Stable funding will allow us to expand on that program, recruit nationally and internationally, and provide the kind of scholarships that attract top trainees to Western,” Holdsworth said.

Targeted recruitments of outstanding faculty will fill gaps in the expertise of researchers currently working in this area at Western, Holdsworth added.

“That’s key. We’re talking about everyone from new recruits at the assistant professor level all the way up to established researchers with national – even international – prominence,” he continued. “These recruits are strategically targeted to bring in additional strengthens synergistic to the capacity we already have.”

As an example of what a cluster designation can accomplish, Cognitive Neuroscience recruited internationally renowned researcher Ingrid Johnsrude as the first Western Research Chair. Recruitment efforts are well underway for a chair in Computational Neuroscience as well.

The new cluster also aligns closely with the proposed London Medical Innovation and Commercialization Network. This network, awarded $10 million by the City of London, will accelerate technology transfer related to musculoskeletal health, medical devices and imaging, creating economic opportunities and growth in London.

“The core component of a cluster like this is our ability to enhance collaboration between researchers,” Holdsworth said. “That is something we are all in favour of, and we all talk about it a lot, but it’s difficult. In a university environment, researchers tend to focus their efforts on a specific area. You need an additional incentive to get people to work across disciplines, across faculties, to combine their efforts.

“We have been quite successful with that strategy. It has really enhanced our research.”

Dixon echoed those sentiments.

“This isn’t about doing a little bit more or doing a little bit better,” he said. “This is going to take us up a notch. People have used the word ‘transformative.’ We envision being one of the top centres in the world for this type of research and development.

“This is a credit to the people involved that they are collaborative and willing to work together as a team.  It’s a real ‘burying the egos and getting on with the job’ type of approach. This would be an example of how, in other areas, Western could work together across faculties. It’s an example and inspiration of what can be accomplished if you work together in a collegial way.”

Deakin concluded the new investment is in line with Western’s strategic plan, Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, which commits to creating a world-class research and scholarship culture where innovation, knowledge creation, translation and mobilization can thrive.

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The Western Cluster of Research Excellence program is a strategic university initiative to establish transdisciplinary, collaborative programs that promote cutting-edge, internationally competitive research in major areas of significant societal importance.

The university has committed to supporting at least four internationally prominent clusters of research and training. These clusters are expected to provide a sustainable platform for:

  • Interdisciplinary, cross-faculty/institutional collaborative research programs;
  • Pooling of skills, expertise and infrastructure;
  • Promoting cutting-edge, internationally competitive research in major areas of significant societal importance;
  • Providing exceptional training environments for postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students; and
  • Attracting and retaining outstanding faculty, staff and students.

The university will invest $5 million over five years in each cluster, align Canada Research Chairs as justified, and provide additional support for strategically aligned endowed chairs. These funds are available for:

  • Recruitment of tenure-track faculty members, using the selection procedures set out for Canada Research Chair appointments;
  • Graduate student and postdoctoral fellow support and training programs;
  • Administrative, technical and operational support;
  • Infrastructure and facility support and development; and
  • Outreach and scholarly activities.