It’s not uncommon for philanthropists to make a donation through the Alberta Cancer Foundation with specifications on how they would like it to be used. The family of the late Dr. Murray Mickleborough thought they knew what they wanted when they created a fund to help patients with head and neck cancer, but they learned that the world of medical research can be complicated and things don’t always go according to plan.
Dr. Mickleborough was a well-respected maxillofacial surgeon who practiced in the Edmonton medical community for more than 20 years, working with patients suffering from cancer of the jaw — sadly, the same disease that Mickleborough himself was ultimately diagnosed with. But before his death in 2011, Mickleborough declared that he wanted $1 million donated in his name toward head and neck cancer research at Edmonton’s Institute for Reconstructive Sciences in Medicine (iRSM). The intent was that the money would be used to hire a dedicated research chair to work out of the University of Alberta (U of A) in partnership with iRSM, driving research projects related to reconstructive surgery. The Mickleboroughs’ donation was matched by the Alberta Cancer Foundation, the Covenant Health Foundation and, with some additional donations, the endowment eventually landed at $3 million.
But that research chair position proved to be difficult to fill. A recruitment process took place in 2012, but the team at U of A couldn’t find the right candidate and they also determined that securing a long-term chair would require more funds than the endowment had to offer. In order to get the money working as soon as possible, the Alberta Cancer Foundation floated the idea of abandoning the academic chair and letting the people within the head and neck cancer community collectively identify projects to be funded by the endowment. The Mickleborough family and iRSM both liked the idea.
“Murray was never about doing things the standard way,” says Ross Porter, Mickleborough’s son-in-law. “The family decided that if there was a better way of leveraging our gift with the matching funds from the Foundation, then we should explore that.”
In 2014, iRSM and the Foundation identified two projects to receive funding through a panel of scientific and medical experts and members of the Mickleborough family. Then, in 2016, the two parties assembled a group consisting of physicians, researchers, patients and family members and asked them to put together a list of research priorities for head and neck cancer, with a focus on improving patients’ quality of life. From there, interested researchers, as well as some of the patients and family members, put together project proposals guided by those priorities. The proposals were presented to a panel that included representatives from the Foundation, iRSM and the Mickleborough family, as well as patients, independent researchers and clinicians who recommended which projects would receive funding.
Through the two rounds, a total of five proposals have now received funding, including a project looking at the possibility of generating nasal cartilage in a lab and support for a clinical trial of a screening tool that uses saliva samples to detect HPV-related head and neck cancers.
What makes the review and selection process unique is the diversity of viewpoints that helped to identify what kind of projects would best help patients.
“The playing field was flat and there was no hierarchy. We used first names only [rather than titles] and had a vigorous debate. I felt and knew that I belonged there,” says Bernie Krewski, a patient who participated in the consultation process after receiving treatment for throat cancer. “The intensity of that process often helped me to forget that I am affected by cancer and continuing to recover from it.”
This collaborative process highlights the collective strengths of the Alberta Cancer Foundation and iRSM, and what can happen when institutions think beyond traditional models and take a more practical approach. Dr. Sam Nakhla, an aerospace engineer at Memorial University of Newfoundland who was brought onto the project as a scientific reviewer, perhaps sums it up best: when people come together in the spirit of genuine collaboration and listen to the very people who are most impacted by what’s being discussed, amazing things can happen.
“The iRSM is a big institute and the Alberta Cancer Foundation is one of the most developed cancer foundations in Canada or even in North America,” Nakhla says. “You have two giants collaborating. You’re double-scoring on the outcomes.”
Researchers and projects funded by the Mickleborough Interfacial Bioscience Research Program in 2017/18
Dr. Vincent Biron
Early detection of HPV-related head and neck cancers
Clinical trial recruiting 120 patients for a saliva-based test to detect HPV-related head and neck cancers.
Dr. Adetola Adesida
Engineering cartilage for nasal reconstruction
Developing high-quality personalized cartilage for nasal reconstructions better matching the patient’s facial contours.
Dr. Hadi Seikaly
Head and Neck Research Network
Developing a sustainable model to support the Head and Neck Research Network tracking patient outcomes.