Sonya MacParland, senior scientist at the University Health Network’s Ajmera Transplant Centre and associate professor at the University of Toronto (U of T), is a main collaborator on a new grant to launch a regenerative medicine training program, which is being led by Michael Sefton, scientific director of Medicine by Design and University Professor at  U of T. (Sonya MacParland photo provided by Sonya MacParland. Michael Sefton photo by Neil Ta.)

Regenerative medicine is a top innovation priority for the government of Canada because it involves strategies for organ and tissue repair and regeneration that could offer a long-lasting therapy for many diseases.

Regenerative medicine researchers often use stem cells, which can turn into almost any cell in the human body, to make healthy cells to transplant into a patient. Sonya MacParland, senior scientist at Ajmera Transplant Centre, University Health Network (UHN), says the Canadian government recognizes regenerative medicine’s importance because there is an urgent need to get it into the clinic.

“Every year, hundreds of people are dying on the organ transplant waiting list. Sometimes a transplant is the only treatment available to them,” MacParland says. “We need to get to the point where we have regenerative medicine therapies that replace the need for transplantation.”

This need is why MacParland, along with a group of inter-disciplinary researchers, has helped launch a state-of-the-art new training program that was announced today. The training program will be funded by the Canadian government’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program at $1.6 million over six years.

“We need students who are ready to adopt new therapies, as well as innovate, for patients’ benefit. That’s the real driving force behind this training program,” she says.

MacParland is the course director for the Training Program in Regenerative Medicine (TPRM), which, for the past 20 years, has offered scientific training to graduate students across Canada to complement their graduate programs through educational seminars as well as an annual symposium.

The feedback that MacParland hears often from TPRM students is that they want more and broader training in regenerative medicine. This new program will give MacParland and other researchers an opportunity to expand TPRM.

The grant is being led by Michael Sefton, Medicine by Design’s scientific director and a biomedical engineer who’s a University Professor at the University of Toronto (U of T). He says a training program like this is important to developing and mentoring a community of highly qualified talent in Canada.

“Medicine won’t look the same 10, 20 or 30 years from now. Today, many talented researchers, engineers and clinicians are doing work that is going to set the stage for the future of medicine,” says Sefton. “The students who participate in this program will be part of a new generation of leaders in the regenerative medicine ecosystem who will be ready to implement and drive the next generation strategies that will transform healthcare.”

MacParland, who is also an associate professor at U of T’s Departments of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology and Immunology, says that the expanded program will offer a wide range of training elements including a seminar series that will emphasize not only the clinical and basic science aspects of organ repair but also implementation science and approaches to scaling and spreading promising or proven interventions. And, depending on the student’s interests, the training program could also include mentorship, internships in the cell and gene industry and other specialized education modules in areas such as bioinformatics, data management, biomanufacturing and commercialization.

Skill development such as communication, grant writing and including equity-seeking groups in research studies and commercialization processes will also be a major part of the program.

The training program will integrate Medicine by Design’s Summer by Design and Building a Biotech Venture programs, which span various aspects of the business of regenerative medicine including entrepreneurship and technology commercialization. Building a Biotech Venture participants focus on translating a real-world concept or technology from their research into a venture, and the program includes a pitch competition. Summer by Design is an intensive summer school program that covers topics like technology strategy, intellectual property, scale-up, regulatory affairs, marketing and strategic communications.

“It’s more than just technical training,” MacParland says. “It gets the students out of their labs and it helps them develop skills that are going to position them for success as they transition towards a career, whether it’s in academia, industry or another area of the regenerative medicine ecosystem.”

Dr. Atul Humar, director of the Ajmera Transplant Centre at UHN and a co-applicant on the grant, says this training program integrates and strengthens existing training partnerships, including one between Medicine by Design and Ajmera Transplant Centre, and will help to foster new opportunities and connections for high potential students.

“We want to create linkages between the clinical side and emerging science and technologies, and also bring multiple disciplines together,” says Humar, who is also a professor of medicine at U of T. “The grant will allow us to do exactly that by providing unique training opportunities for talented students across a spectrum of disciplines related to regenerative medicine and transplantation”

CREATE, a program run by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), aims to provide highly qualified students and postdoctoral fellows with innovative training programs that address significant scientific challenges and encourage collaboration and integration between industry and academia.

MacParland says Medicine by Design is a natural partner in the new training program.

“Medicine by Design offers exposure to the full pipeline of developing therapies from basic discovery to the bench,” MacParland says. “And they’re also really strongly committed to bringing translational research teams together to speed up that process.”

The new training program is a nationwide partnership that, along with the Ajmera Transplant Centre and Medicine by Design, also includes industry partners 10x Genomics, Traferox and Notch Therapeutics. In addition, the public sector partners are Stem Cell Network, Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, National Centre for Research Methods, Canadian Donation and Transplantation Research Program, BC Regenerative Medicine Network, CCRM and BITE.

Read about all the U of T Engineering faculty members awarded 2023 CREATE grants on the Faculty of Engineering’s website