Watch the event recording

On May 7, Medicine by Design celebrated the future of human health at an event called, Grand Questions: Glimpse the future of regenerative medicine.

More than 200 people from the Medicine by Design community, both from the University of Toronto (U of T) and its affiliated hospitals and from industry and partner groups, learned about four ambitious projects selected for funding in the Grand Questions Program. These projects were chosen because of their potential to develop transformative solutions that will be of critical importance to regenerative medicine over the next 20 years.

The selected researchers also participated in a panel discussion moderated by world-renowned expert in developmental biology Dr. Janet Rossant, who is the president and scientific director at the Gairdner Foundation.

“At Medicine by Design we believe we can make the most significant advances in regenerative medicine by bringing together scientists, engineers and physicians to work together at the convergence of disciplines on key questions,” said Michael Sefton, executive director of Medicine by Design and a University Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at U of T. “The Canada First Research Excellence Fund, has been instrumental in making that vision a reality. The Grand Questions program is the next step in our multi-institutional research strategy. These projects point to alternative directions in research and new uses of technology – ones that bypass the obvious and emphasize the provocative.”

Funded by a $114-million grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, Medicine by Design brings together more than 150 principal investigators at the University of Toronto and its affiliated hospitals to advance regenerative medicine discoveries and accelerate them toward impact. It builds on decades of made-in-Canada excellence in regenerative medicine dating back to the discovery of stem cells in the early 1960s by Toronto researchers James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch.

Ali Ehsassi, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry (Innovation and Industry) and Member of Parliament for Willowdale, addressed the Medicine by Design community on behalf of the federal government.

“As many of you are aware, the government announced a landmark investment of almost $1.3 billion as part of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, and the University of Toronto’s Medicine by Design was awarded approximately $114 million to establish a unique global capacity in regenerative medicine within a single cluster,” said Ehsassi. “The leading-edge research you perform is nothing short of breathtakingly remarkable and transformative. The government recognizes the incredible potential these innovations hold to permit the world to achieve better health and economic outcomes.”

Ehsassi added, “Over the coming years the government will continue to make investments that matter to science and will undoubtedly improve the quality of life for all Canadians.”

Christine Allen, associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives and a professor in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at U of T, also brought greetings from U of T, and spoke about Medicine by Design’s importance as a strategic research initiative.

“Medicine by Design is the university’s preeminent convergent research initiative. In the past five years, Medicine by Design has become the hub for Toronto’s regenerative medicine community. By solving these Grand Questions, Medicine by Design will pave the way for healthcare transformation that will enable dramatically better health outcomes for patients with conditions such as heart failure, stroke and blindness. The Grand Questions program promises to amplify Medicine by Design’s impact by curating research teams with expertise in new and emerging fields,” Allen said.

After remarks from Ehsassi and Allen, Sefton announced the four funded projects:

  • Michael Garton, assistant professor at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, leads a project that looks at designing tissues that are enhanced, and perhaps even function better than natural ones. His project merges synthetic biology and stem cell biology.
  • Sevan Hopyan, orthopaedic surgeon and senior scientist, The Hospital for Sick Children, leads a project that studies organ formation in the embryo by applying the principles of physics to tissue development.
  • Alison McGuigan, professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry and the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at U of T, leads a project that asks if we can record how cells are communicating with each other in order to more precisely control the environment when cell therapies are used.
  • Keith Pardee, assistant professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, and his team want to make regenerative medicine affordable and accessible by making portable cell manufacturing systems so that therapeutic cells can be made outside of urban and well-resourced centres.

During the panel discussion titled Ambitious and provocative – expanding the frontiers of regenerative medicine, which followed the announcement, Dr. Rossant highlighted international partnerships as an important component of the Grand Questions program.

Garton said the Grand Questions Program gave him an opportunity to develop new collaborations. “Being able to go to people with something high-risk that maybe would not ordinarily get funded really opened the door to working with people that probably wouldn’t have been as interested in a new investigator otherwise. Working with Martin Fussenegger and Ron Weiss — really the pioneers of synthetic biology — and other regenerative medicine pioneers…certainly wouldn’t be possible without this vehicle to do it.”

Pardee has also assembled an impressive team of U of T researchers and key partners with leading expertise in biomanufacturing and technology scale-up including CCRM and the National Research Council Canada.

“We created this team that would have definitely not have come together if it wasn’t for having this challenge to tackle.” Pardee said.

Rossant also highlighted how the projects and Grand Questions themes link together in various ways.

“It’s great to hear about such exciting research coming out of the four teams that have been funded under these challenging questions you’ve all been addressing,” Dr. Rossant said. “I think it’s wonderful to see how much cross-talk there is [between these projects] because it’s moving toward the goal of advancing the field of regenerative medicine, so all of these pieces have to come together. We have four teams, but also one big interactive team.”

McGuigan said the strong synthetic biology link in the projects would be key to developing cross-cutting technologies that can be used by investigators working with different cell types. Many of the projects have a common aim, she said.

“A lot of the projects rely on being able to engineer cells to be smart in some way and understand the rules that govern their function,” said McGuigan.

Pardee said that the learnings from McGuigan’s cell recording project and Hopyan’s study of the physics of embyro development could be leveraged to enable more efficient cell differentiation inside the machine he’s creating for portable cell manufacturing.

Hopyan pointed out that his team’s project and McGuigan’s project could eventually be used to inform one another by combining observations, leading to a better understanding of how a cell responds to its surrounding environment — and how that response affects the cell’s development, which could influence disease progression as well as inform new strategies to treat disease.

Garton added that affordability and accessibility is also a cross-cutting theme, because new technologies, such as the ones in his project, will be useful for remote communities.

“If you can make cells that detect disease and autonomously respond, you have much less interaction with health infrastructure because it’s all going on in your own body.”