Photo of statues of Ernest McCulloch and James Till outside the MaRS Centre in Toronto.

Medicine by Design’s Grand Questions Program aims to define the future of regenerative medicine, a field that was born in Toronto in the 1960s with the discovery of stem cells by Dr. Ernest McCulloch and James Till. These statues located outside the MaRS Centre celebrate their groundbreaking work. (Photo by Ann Perry)

Eight multi-disciplinary research teams will vie for $3 million in funding in the next phase of Medicine by Design’s Grand Questions Program, which aims to define the future of regenerative medicine by tackling some of the field’s most important unanswered questions.

The teams, which were shortlisted from a field of 20, will spend the coming weeks sharpening and refining their proposals for projects that will address long-standing challenges in regenerative medicine and have the potential to redefine the field for the next 20 to 30 years. Their goals include reversing organ failure, making cells and tissue that outperform nature, and ensuring new therapies are affordable and accessible.

“We asked people to be bold, and they have delivered,” 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. “The proposals that are moving forward are impressive in their ambition, scope and diversity and truly have the potential for transformative impact on current concepts and paradigms in regenerative medicine. Through the Grand Questions Program, we are seeding the next phase of Medicine by Design and strengthening Toronto’s and Canada’s leadership in the field.”

Read more about the launch of Medicine by Design’s Grand Questions Program

The shortlisted teams include principal investigators and clinicians from across the University of Toronto (U of T) and its affiliated hospitals, representing fields as diverse as biomedical engineering, immunology, chemistry, computational science and medicine. They were selected after a review of phase 1 proposals by Medicine by Design’s Scientific Advisory Board. During the next phase, these teams will elucidate their proposals and are expected to integrate international regenerative medicine experts as scientific advisors.

Two of the shortlisted teams are led by Medicine by Design Investigators – new faculty members whom Medicine by Design has helped recruit over the past five years to renew and diversify Toronto’s world-class regenerative medicine research community. The short-listed teams also include a number of investigators who have not previously been part of the Medicine by Design community.

Final funding decisions are expected early in 2021. The Grand Questions Program draws inspiration from other large-scale funding initiatives that seek to make transformational advances in health research by encouraging bold new approaches, such as Cancer Research UK’s Cancer Grand Challenges and the National Cancer Institute’s Provocative Questions Initiative.

Funded by a $114-million grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, Medicine by Design brings together more than 145 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.

The eight short-listed teams are as follows:

Affordability and Accessibility

  • Lead: Keith Pardee (Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, U of T) – Making cell therapies accessible and affordable for all Canadians

Designing Tissues de novo

  • Lead: Michael Garton (Institute of Biomedical Engineering, U of T) – Sowing the seeds of a de novo tissue revolution with synthetic biology

New Technology for Cell Tracking

  • Lead: Alison McGuigan (Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, U of T) – Improving cell therapy outcomes by using a novel DNA cell recorder
  • Lead: Aaron Wheeler (Department of Chemistry, U of T) – Writing “biographies” of single cells to unlock the mystery of brain regeneration

Physics of Regeneration

  • Lead: Dr. Sevan Hopyan (The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids)) – Regenerating adult organs using principles from early development

Reversing Organ Failure

  • Lead: Brian Cox (Department of Physiology, U of T) – Regenerating and repairing organs using insights from pregnancy
  • Lead: Dr. Christoph Licht (SickKids) – Reversing scarring to restore organ function
  • Lead: Dr. Agostino Pierro (SickKids) – Treating intestinal and liver failure using organoids