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Philanthropic gift establishes chair in maternal-fetal medicine

Dec 5, 2014

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Clinician-scientist aims to transform research and education in high-risk obstetrical care globally

By Eleni Kanavas

One of the world’s leading experts in high-risk births has been named the inaugural Waks Family Chair in Maternal-Fetal Medicine Research at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Dr. Jon Barrett, director of the Women & Babies Research Program at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) and chief of maternal-fetal medicine at Sunnybrook, received the good news in a congratulatory email message from Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at SRI, while on his way to work one day in October.

“It’s an honour to be named Chair. There is a feeling of excitement about how we can take the program to the next level of international recognition of the excellence that we [achieve] here,” says Barrett, who is also a professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Toronto.

“My vision is that our program will be the ‘fountain of knowledge and the stream of its dissemination.’ This means that we will create new knowledge of the best way to look after pregnant women, and then we will be able to translate that to other people who are looking after high-risk women and their babies throughout the world. By doing this we improve the quality of care of women in Toronto and internationally.”

Thanks to a generous donation led by Toronto philanthropists Fred and Linda Waks and matched by family and friends, the $2-million Chair will enable Barrett to focus on research relating to patients with high-risk pregnancies and births. The main areas of research will be related to very small preemies, multiple births, early fetal ultrasound, and the process and service of high-risk patient transfers.

Barrett is working to establish three large platforms of research that include randomized clinical trials, the linkage of databases and the development of networks within the Greater Toronto Area and beyond. Barrett says he aims to look at the bigger picture of maternal-fetal medicine and find opportunities to collaborate with international researchers in the field.

“This much-needed research Chair is a reality because a small group of donors who felt a deep commitment to improving the health of women and babies rallied to make it happen,” says Dr. Jon Dellandrea, president and CEO of Sunnybrook Foundation. “We’re very grateful, in particular, to Fred and Linda Waks. Without their leadership and their passion for the project, the Waks Family Chair in Maternal-Fetal Medicine Research would not have been possible.”

The gift was a result of the care Jessica, the Waks’ eldest daughter, received during her high-risk pregnancy with identical twins. “We take pride in knowing that our donation establishing the Chair in Maternal-Fetal Medicine Research will benefit other high-risk moms-to-be,” says Fred Waks. “We are so grateful to Sunnybrook for the safe arrival of our beautiful grandsons, Jack and Charlie, and to our friends and family who have also helped support this important initiative.”

Even though the field of obstetrics usually deals with normal physiological processes, Barrett says that things can go wrong. “The most common complications are preterm birth, toxemia or high blood pressure during pregnancy and stillbirth,” he says. “It’s our job to take care of women and their babies to make the outcomes of their pregnancy better.”

The Women & Babies Program at Sunnybrook is unique. There are seven full-time maternal-fetal medicine specialists. Moreover, there are three fellows and two residents affiliated with the maternal-fetal medicine fellowship program at the University of Toronto and residency rotation program. Barrett says they see about 4,200 patients a year, one-third of which are high-risk pregnancies. Obstetricians within the program deliver the largest number of premature babies in Canada and provide care to the smallest and sickest infants. The program is also recognized as a leader in clinical trials.

Since moving to Sunnybrook four years ago, Barrett says the program and its staff have persevered through many challenges to achieve integration within an academic health care institution. “Now we really feel that we belong, because with the Chair, we have the ability within the wonderful Sunnybrook family to push the frontiers of medical care and research for these women.”