A Fertile Mind; A Major Impact
Celebrating a legend of Canadian medicine
“I thought we could grumble, or we could be imaginative.”
In the lab, Dr. Henry Friesen advanced the treatment of women’s infertility. In the community, he helped change the footprint and identity of St. Boniface Hospital. And in the corridors of power, he helped transform how medical research was perceived and funded in Canada.
Now in his eighties, the Morden-born medical pioneer – and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba – reflects on a dynamic career, and a passion for research.
After graduating high school in Winnipeg, Dr. Friesen moved on to the U of M where he earned his MD. After graduating and completing a clinical residency, Dr. Friesen heeded the advice of his professors and looked to gain a foothold in the world of research – endocrinology to be specific, the study of hormones.
His curiosity and passion for advancing knowledge were especially inspired by Professor Joseph Doupe. “He had this unique teaching style, which really underscored a serious skepticism of the written word,” says Dr. Friesen, a member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. “He encouraged students not to accept at face value everything that was said, or thought to be true. In fact, he proved to us many times over, that what was stated in textbooks was flawed, incomplete, inadequate, and our mindset ought to be to carefully scrutinize what is said… that’s absolutely the very foundation of research.”
Through his work at New England Center Hospital and Tufts University in Boston, and later at McGill University and Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, Dr. Friesen’s scepticism and hard work led to important discoveries related to hormones, the most significant of which was the discovery of human prolactin in 1970.
Prolactin, which is secreted by the pituitary gland, is a protein that serves a variety of functions in the body. Most significantly, it is related to fertility and a woman’s ability to produce milk. About a quarter of women who are infertile have abnormally high levels of prolactin. Through a collaboration with a Swiss company, Dr. Friesen was able to demonstrate that a drug called Bromocriptin could control the overproduction of prolactin and shrink related tumors of the pituitary gland, thereby addressing a range of possible health impacts in women.
Dr. Friesen undertook rigorous training in advanced research in the field of endocrinology at the New England Center Hospital in Boston. A year as Assistant Professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine was followed by an appointment at McGill University where Dr. Friesen rose rapidly through the academic ranks to become a full Professor of Experimental Medicine. During this period he received an Associateship of the Medical Research Council of Canada, the highest career award granted by the Council.
In 1973, Dr. Friesen couldn’t resist the invitation to return to his home province to become the head of the University of Manitoba’s department of physiology. Dr. Friesen recruited leading thinkers and researchers who worked together to establish a “base of operations” that ultimately became what’s known today as the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre.
Dr. Friesen was recognized nationally as a leading light in the promotion of medical research, and was invited in 1991 to serve as President of what was then known as the Medical Research Council of Canada, the lead federal agency funding medical research.
“I recognized that the opportunity was immense,” he reflects. “I believed that research was really the route to advancing our understanding of disease and illness, and the impact of new discoveries affected the practice of medicine profoundly. All I needed to do was to recognize how little we knew when I graduated compared to what exists today. In some fields it’s just night and day. I mean the truth is, when I graduated in 1958, knowledge of many subjects was rudimentary.”
At the time of his appointment, the Council’s budget was about $200 million during a period where the government was keenly focused on reducing the federal deficit. For Dr. Friesen, the amount was not enough to truly raise the bar. “I thought we could grumble, or we could be imaginative,” he says.
Under Dr. Friesen’s leadership, the Council launched a labour-sponsored Canadian medical discoveries fund and also entered into partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry. Through the efforts of Dr. Friesen and his colleagues, the Council was able to double their five-year cash flow and make significant investments in medical research.
When the government managed to tame the deficit, generate a surplus, and invest more in innovation, Dr. Friesen seized the moment to step forward to call for a radical transformation of the Medical Research Council of Canada.
“The Council was really focused on biomedical research as a foundation. Obviously it’s key to a fundamental understanding of how the body and cells work,” says Dr. Friesen. “If you think about health, it’s much beyond the function of cells. It’s about nutrition; it’s about housing; it’s about the social determinants of health. So the modern health research portfolio really should be broader than simply the cellular, biomedical component.”
Dr. Friesen relentlessly promoted his vision of a robust, well-funded, diverse, national medical research infrastructure. He compared his health research vision to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s vision of a national railroad to connect the country. His message to Health Minister Allan Rock was persuasive: “Wouldn’t it be right, in a modern era, to see across Canada, a health research platform coast to coast, linked, united, integrated and integral to part of our health system? That could be a legacy for the government and for the future of Canadians and their health system.”
Dr. Friesen was successful in pursuing and promoting his vision. By 2000, Parliament established the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, a network of 13 institutes with a mission to “create new scientific knowledge and to enable its translation into improved health, more effective health services and products, and a strengthened Canadian health care system.” With a significant increase in budget and broad mandate, the CIHR has moved Canada forward in health research.
While Dr. Friesen’s impact has been national in scope, his local impact is also significant. While he declares a modest role in establishing the Research Centre at St. Boniface, he was quite influential in the Centre’s establishment in 1987.
“If you want to move from being a community hospital, a good community hospital, an excellent community hospital, to be a modern contributor as part of an academic health system, you do have to have a research foundation and base,” explains Dr. Friesen. A well-funded and dynamic research program, says Dr. Friesen, attracts leading researchers and talented international partners.
While Dr. Friesen has enjoyed a rich career of discovery and influence, he is able to zero in on what the ultimate purpose of his work has been: “In the end, of course, it’s all about the patient. That’s the ultimate goal. The benefit of that new discovery and new understanding really is for the patient.”
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