Arthritis Centre of Excellence (An ACE against Arthritis)
Arthritis research got a huge shot in the arm this year with a $1.2 million bequest to the Ontario Division of The Arthritis Society (TAS) by the late Ms. Sarah Edna Hitchinson. In January, that gift became the cornerstone of the new University of Toronto Arthritis Centre of Excellence (ACE).
The $4.8-million centre — created with matching funds from TAS, the
University of Toronto, the Conn Smythe Foundation, and The Toronto Hospital
Foundation — is the realization of a dream, says Larry Youell, chair of the
Board of Directors of TAS Ontario: "Together, we and our partners will set a
new pace for research. It will become a magnet for some of the best research
scientists in the world, and a training ground for young arthritis researchers."
Ontario Health Minister Elizabeth Witmer predicted the centre would "quickly
become an international leader in the control of arthritis." Arthris and related
illnesses affect four million Canadians and cost $18 billion a year, she noted
— numbers expected to rise with our aging population: "It’s becoming more
essential than ever that we find solutions, and this Centre is a big step in that
direction… since it not only holds out hope for better forms of treatment and
improved quality of life for those touched by arthritis, but it may play an
important role in finding a cure for this debilitating condition."
The new Centre, located at The Toronto’s Hospital’s Western Division, also
benefits from hospital restructuring, which has brought elements of Wellesley
Centre Hospital and The Toronto Hospital together to form the
Wellesley-Toronto Arthritis and Immune Disorder Research Centre (WTC).
Together, the ACE and the WTC create a remarkable concentration of
clinicians and researchers. Their task, says ACE director Dr. Rob Inman, will
be "to make a real difference in the major autoimmune rheumatic diseases,
rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and lupus; a real difference in terms of the basic
understanding and treatment; and fundamentally, for better outcomes for
patients with these diseases."
Lupus and RA affect large numbers of Canadians, predominantly women,
Inman says. "Advancing a comprehensive attack on these diseases means
drawing on expertise from a broad spectrum of research — from molecular
biology to advanced therapeutics. What is unique about ACE is the
concentration of excellence from a range of disciplines. Rheumatology,
orthopaedic surgery and immunology are united in an integrated, cohesive
program of world-class calibre that extends from the clinic to the molecular
While $4.8 million doesn’t go far in today’s research world, it does permit
certain immediate benefits, including essential new equipment and the
financial wherewithal to enlist bright young trainees. "We think the best
investment in the future of this battle with arthritis," Inman says, "is to equip
a group of young, committed researchers with the tools they need to keep
this battle ongoing."
The cash infusion also enables the ACE to attract (and, it’s hoped, keep)
talented senior researchers, most of whom are drawn to well-funded
American private labs and universities. "This gives us our best shot at
recruiting those senior investigators," Inman says. "The best thing we can do
is create a climate that’s scientifically exciting, so that even a senior
researcher would love to be part of that team. We create that magnet, then
we try to minimize the disincentives." Ultimately, the global goal of the ACE,
he says, "is to really make a difference, particularly in RA and lupus. That’s
the final arbiter: Are we making a difference for patients?"
Does that mean patients should expect a lot? Yes, Inman says, "because
we’re shooting for a lot. We expect there should be tangible results in terms
of both surgical and medical management." Inman hopes they’ll develop new
drugs, and perhaps early-diagnosis tools, such as the ability to identify
susceptibility genes that would help doctors decide how severe a patient’s
disease will be, and thus how aggressively it should be treated.
Whatever advances are made can’t come too soon, says long-time patient
advocate Honey Agar, who’s had lupus for most of her adult life. Agar’s
mother died of scleroderma, an autoimmune disorder, and now Agar’s own
daughter asks her, "What if I get scleroderma, or lupus, or rheumatoid
Every time her daughter or one of her two granddaughters becomes unwell,
Agar can’t help fearing the worst. But now, she says, with the new Arthritis
Centre of Excellence, "God willing, in the next few years, we will find better
medications to help treat them, so lupus patients don’t have to make the
decision to take toxic, potent drugs that can destroy as much as heal. And
we won’t have to live with the fear that, every time we get a pain or a
discomfort, this might be the beginning of the end."