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New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices
Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)

A new Yukon research unit will examine health and wellness in the territory, in collaboration with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

“Instead of research in the Yukon being determined by a single person in a laboratory in Toronto, it’s going to take now into account the people of the Yukon,” said Member of Parliament Larry Bagnell on Jan. 21.

“(It) will find down-to-earth problems we’re having, and solutions to those problems in the system.”

The newly launched initiative, dubbed the Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR) Support for People and Patient-Oriented Research and Trials (SUPPORT) Unit, will join a network of national units already funded by the CIHR.

The new SPOR SUPPORT Unit was announced on Jan. 21 via Zoom conference with federal, territorial and university delegates.

The Yukon is the second territory to gain a SPOR SUPPORT Unit, behind the Northwest Territories. There are eight units currently serving the 10 provinces.

Yukon University will host the SPOR SUPPORT Unit and hire a scientific director and operations manager. The unit will be overseen by an advisory committee. The idea behind the unit is patient-driven research into health issues specific to the Yukon, according to Health Minister Pauline Frost.

A number of priorities have already been outlined for the new unit, including the health impacts of climate change; mental health and addictions; diabetes education and prevention; and land-based healing.

SPOR researchers will conduct on-the-ground studies that include speaking with patients, patient families and Indigenous knowledge-keepers. Frost explained that the unit will focus on incorporating both Indigenous and western knowledge into the territory’s health and social services.

The minister said she envisions Yukoners “engaged as equal partners” in health research through the SPOR team.

“Typically patients often feel like research … is done on them, not with them or for them. It’s important for us to look from the lens of the person we are researching,” Frost said.

The university was chosen to host the project due to its strong connections to communities and Indigenous ways of knowing, according to deputy minister of health Stephen Samis.

Maggie Matear, Yukon University’s interim president, said the project aligns with the school’s commitment to research as a newly-minted university. She expressed confidence in the unit’s capacity for harvesting local wisdom.

“We know that Yukon holds a tremendous amount of knowledge, and this knowledge has been gained through generations of connection to the land we live on,” Matear said.

“We have so many experts right here at home, and we need only find ways to leverage these more — SPOR creates the space for doing this.”

The local SPOR SUPPORT Unit will also benefit from the research conducted by other units across Canada. Bagnell explained that national units have spurred diabetes research, mental health system improvements and an online ordering system for antibiotics in the southern provinces.

Tammy Clifford, Vice-President of Research Programs for CIHR, said local researchers can expect national support.

“At the end of the day, the support unit is about finding innovative ways to improve health,” Clifford said.

“It’s about working together, sharing ideas and learning from one another, all in the spirit of creating a better future for our children and grandchildren.”

The unit’s advisory committee will ensure that research is communicated to the appropriate channels and implemented accordingly.

According to Laura Hillier, a director with the Health Department, implementation becomes an aspect of the research process when patients are directly involved with the unit’s studies.

“One of the fantastic features of having an integrated model … is there’s no surprises, there’s no end-of-game approach, the person who needs to use the research already has it because they’ve been part of the process,” Hillier said.

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit received $5.25 million in funding from CIHR, and an additional $5.2 million of in-kind funding in the form of office space, facilities and staffing.

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at