To accelerate research, the world needs international collaborations
Martha Crago
Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation

McGill University

Amid geopolitical complexity, Canada must continue to recognize the enormous benefits of conducting collaborative research that transcends disciplines and national boundaries. International research collaborations were essential in catalyzing the rapid response to COVID-19, and they remain critical to improving global health.

The Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), established by the Government of Canada in 2014, contributes enormously to a culture of mutually-funded partnered research in Canada. The CFREF has helped solidify Canada’s knowledge leadership and is accelerating international scientific collaboration.

For example, the Helmholtz International BigBrain Analytics and Learning Laboratory (HIBALL), unites McGill with the Helmholtz Forschungszentrum Jülich as one of nine prestigious Helmholtz International Labs. Funded jointly by the Helmholtz Association and by Healthy Brains, Healthy Lives (HBHL) – a McGill-led CFREF initiative – HIBALL explores big data applications, notably AI, in neuroscience. HIBALL is combining brain data to build an ultra-high-resolution atlas of the brain’s anatomy – its ‘wiring’ – and its functional organization.

Just as we need the whole machinery of data science to understand connectivity in the brain, we need diverse teams to tackle psychiatric disorders, which are the leading cause of disability worldwide. The McGill-Douglas Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry International Collaborative Initiative in Adversity and Mental Health unites German and Canadian scientists to address this global health issue. Based on the strong, existing collaborations between these institutions, this first-of-its-kind international effort is researching the biological and environmental determinants of psychiatric disorders.

For the development of novel RNA therapeutics, collaboration is clearly essential, both to the progress of research and for the betterment of society. This is the ethos of the McGill-led CFREF initiative, DNA to RNA (D2R): An Inclusive Canadian Approach to Genomic-based RNA Therapeutics, awarded $165M from the CFREF in 2023, and bolstered by $188M from industry, academic, government, community, and non-profit partners on four continents. D2R promises to revolutionize medicine through novel RNA therapeutics for rare and infectious diseases, and cancer. D2R will produce research that is inclusive and relevant to the health needs of medically underserved groups, including Indigenous communities and the elderly.

These CFREF initiatives offer incredible training opportunities. We must not underestimate the role that students play in building international partnerships that span generations and link Canada to other nations. Having experience in multiple research environments is not only important for career development, but it can also prepare emerging researchers to connect disciplines and nations.

It is in this spirit that McGill will lead the Symposium on Genomic Medicine, RNA Therapeutics and Health this spring in Tokyo, organised in partnership with the RIKEN Center of Integrated Medical Sciences, McGill’s Victor Phillip Dahdaleh Institute of Genomic Medicine, the newly founded Pasteur Institute-Japan, and the UK Biobank. The Symposium will bring together academic and industry representatives from Japan, South-East Asia, Europe, and North America to discuss the future of biomedicine, and to promote international collaboration and partnership. Students from McGill’s joint PhD in Genomic Medicine with Kyoto University, which is supported by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology’s Top Global University Program and the Fonds de Recherche du Québec, will also participate – further enhancing their training in international collaboration.

The adage ‘two heads are better than one’ has been overused, but the benefits to science and society of uniting the best and brightest minds are plain to see. While there may be testing times ahead for international research collaborations, Canada must continue to set bold research aspirations, embrace every opportunity to share our expertise with like-minded partners, and train our students to be global ambassadors. The health of all Canadians, and people around the world, will be better for it.