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."