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Key sectors

Health and Nutrition

Cutting-edge research facilities = ingenious ideas

Laval University Hospital Centre (CHUL)
Healthcare for everyone

Tackling the major health problems of our era is the mission entrusted to the 1,200 employees of the Laval University Hospital Centre’s Research Centre, one of Canada’s largest biomedical research facilities.

CHUL Research Centre
  • Year founded: 1970
  • Number of employees: 1,200, including 200 researchers, 500 graduate students and 500 technicians and other professionals
  • Annual budget: approximately CA$65 million

Two laboratories:
  • Arthritis laboratory
  • Skin cancer laboratory

“Researchers should always focus on whether their discoveries will have clinical applications. If they don’t, their work will simply gather dust on the shelf. Researchers are by far the best people, if not the only people who can convince the industry that their discoveries are important,” says Dr. Fernand Labrie, a researcher in CHUL’s molecular, oncological and genomic endocrinology unit. Dr. Labrie followed his own advice, bringing about a global revolution in prostate cancer treatment.

Supported by a 500-person technical and professional staff, the Centre’s 200 researchers and 500 students seek to uphold a tradition of excellence. They know their discoveries will have negligible impact if there are no potential healthcare applications that could be used to improve diagnostics and treatment for people of all ages affected by a wide range of diseases. For that reason, the Centre has always urged its researchers to expedite the transition from basic research to clinical applications.

Chemical castration

One of the Centre’s most notable achievements is a chemical castration procedure that uses luteinizing hormone releasing hormone (LHRH) agonists; LHRH is a brain hormone that controls reproduction and sex hormone production. The procedure was developed in the early 1980s and quickly replaced surgical castration around the world. By combining chemical castration with an anti-androgen (a substance that blocks the effects of male hormones produced by the prostate gland), Dr. Labrie’s team discovered and developed the first treatment that successfully prolonged the life of men with prostate cancer, even late-stage patients.

The growth of prostate cancer cells is stimulated by male hormones from two sources: the testicles and the adrenal glands. The researchers developed a treatment that blocks both sources and effectively halts the progression of the disease. “It’s become the standard hormonal treatment for prostate cancer patients around the world. Thanks to this discovery, more than 90% of patients can be cured if the cancer is localized at the time of treatment,” notes Dr. Labrie.

Breast cancer: coming into focus

Dr. Labrie’s team has also studied breast cancer for over 20 years. The evolution of this disease is similar to that of prostate cancer because the tumours are fuelled by hormones in both cases (by female hormones, or estrogens, in the case of breast cancer).

As with prostate cancer treatments, the researchers looked into hormone blockers and precursors. “We discovered and developed an estrogen blocker that is currently in the final stage of clinical trials,” says Dr. Labrie.

During menopause, many women take drugs to maintain their hormone levels. However, many of these drugs are estrogen-based and increase the risk of breast cancer. “Instead of giving these women estrogen, which spreads throughout the organism, an inactive precursor is administered in combination with an estrogen blocker, which prevents the onset of breast cancer. The precursor is converted into active hormones only in the tissues that need it,” he explains.

Promoting entrepreneurship

The Centre’s activities have brought major economic benefits to the Quebec City region. A number of pharmaceutical and biotech companies have sprung up as a result of projects undertaken by CHUL or researchers who once worked there.

These companies are all seeking to transform CHUL’s projects into treatments, drugs and diagnostic procedures. Dr. Labrie cites the examples of Anapharm, Atrium Innovations and GlaxoSmithKline, which operate in the vaccine development sector, and Becton, Dickinson and Company, which has successfully marketed early diagnosis kits thanks to research conducted by CHUL’s infectious diseases unit.

CHUL’s Research Centre takes in 500 master’s and doctoral students each year and employs 200 researchers who are internationally renowned for their outstanding work. “Eighteen of Laval University’s 25 most-cited researchers worldwide are from the Centre—that’s 72%!” says Dr. Labrie. Thanks to their contributions, life sciences knowledge is growing and Quebec City’s reputation is spreading worldwide.

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