The trials and tribulations of surgical research

Medical researchers leading clinical trials play an essential role in creating new approaches to treat illness and disease. What the public may not realize is expanding knowledge and improving health outcomes often requires overcoming significant challenges.

“Researchers can make it seem like their work flows perfectly,” says Dr. Elijah Dixon, MD, professor and deputy head in the Department of Surgery, and member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine. “I want to provide an honest, pragmatic overview of what it’s like to do research.”

Dixon is a sought-after speaker who has shared his knowledge of surgical research locally and internationally. He says time management is critical, as researchers balance the requirements of a research project with the need to perform surgery on patients at busy clinical practices. They must also ensure members of the research team — including funders, participants, medical professionals and others — clearly understand the project, and believe in the research goal and its role in advancing medical research.

Dixon says researchers must secure the funding required for clinical trials, which requires volunteers to help test new medical treatments or interventions.“If you’re getting started with clinical trials, it’s important to focus on low-cost options at first to show people you’re capable,” says Dixon. “Once you have a track record of success it’s easier to apply for and receive funding.”

Securing funding is highly competitive with many research projects vying for the small amount of research dollars available. Canadian researchers are renowned for conducting high-quality medical research, contributing further to the competitive landscape. 

Other challenges researchers face include tracking down relevant data from different provinces, covering the basic costs of research studies without funding, analyzing data once it is collected, and publishing in top journals. 

“Gathering data was a big challenge for us and took a considerable amount of time,” shares Dixon. “Because each province has different privacy laws and regulations governing the data they can provide.” 

Dixon says despite the challenges, medical research in Canada also has many advantages and the quality of health care is among the best in the world.

Dixon and his team including Dr. Chad Ball, MD; Dr. Oliver Bathe, MD’00; and Dr. Francis Sutherland, MD’82, overcame many obstacles to make life-altering discoveries with their research. Through clinical trials, they determined how best to reconstruct the pancreas after a Whipple procedure, which involves removal of the wide part of the digestive organ. They found that a device known as a wound protector was effective in reducing infection rates for patients undergoing the Whipple procedure. In another clinical trial they determined the use of a particular medication helps prevent post-surgical complications after significant liver surgery.

Dixon and his team’s research offer an inspiring example of the breakthroughs that are possible after overcoming research obstacles.

“You can work through your struggles and come up with effective solutions to the challenges you’re facing — it’s about persevering, being tenacious and not giving up.