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Cellular and biomolecular research centre opens in Toronto


Toronto, ON – The opening of the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research (CCBR) at the University of Toronto this week signals a new era of discovery in the prevention and treatment of disease, says U of T president David Naylor.

“It is not often we have the opportunity to open a building that is both a scientific and architectural landmark,” he says. “The Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research is a beautiful structure that is the gateway to a new era of discovery.”

Sited on the former Taddle Creek Road and linked to the adjoining Medical Sciences, Tanz and Rosebrugh buildings, Donnelly CCBR is close to the Toronto Discovery District and U of T’s historic St George campus. The centre will foster collaborative and interdisciplinary biomedical research, building on the success of the Human Genome Project.

The centre brings to the University of Toronto state-of-the-art research facilities providing flexible and collaborative laboratory and teaching opportunities dedicated to defining the frontiers of biomedical research within its 10 floors of laboratory and teaching facilities, housing 400 diverse research specialists, including molecular and developmental biologists, geneticists, computer scientists, chemists and bioengineers.

More than 40 key researchers and their teams will seek to reveal the inner workings of the cell to allow a clear picture of normal and disease processes at the molecular level and to develop effective treatments. The centre will also function as a collaborative classroom, providing hands-on training for approximately 300 students and 100 post-doctoral fellows.

Numerous projects are already underway in the CCBR, including collaborative research programs that have been stimulated by new interactions among scientists. Also, the CCBR has attracted some new faculty members to the University of Toronto: in the past year, six young scientists have been recruited to the CCBR in collaboration with other departments at the university. These scientists join U of T from Yale University, the University of Zurich and the University of California, Los Angeles, among other institutions.

Key research projects currently underway at CCBR include:

A team of geneticists led by Professors Charles Boone, Brenda Andrews and Timothy Hughes will set up a state-of-the-art functional genomics laboratory. The lab aims to use the techniques of post-genome biology to systematically explore the function of all genes in the cell. The overall goal is to produce the first glimpse of the complex wiring diagram for the cell and to use this diagram as a template for predicting how to manipulate the cell’s circuitry with small molecules or drugs.

Professors Peter Zandstra and Cindi Morshead are engaged in examining the complexities of stem cells. Despite their enormous potential, much remains to be discovered about how to predict and control stem cell development, which is crucial to translating their demonstrated potential into effective therapies. Dr Zandstra’s team is using engineering-based approaches such as modelling, molecular engineering and bioreactor design to enable new stem cell based therapies.

Dr Morshead’s team is looking at the possibility of using stem cells in the treatment of strokes and other injuries to the nervous system. Previous research has shown potential for stem cells in the treatment of strokes. Dr Morshead is investigating whether it is possible to activate stem cells in a stroke victim’s brain to repair the resulting neural damage. The interactions between the stem cell and genetics teams will produce new approaches to understanding how stem cells work.

Dr Molly Shoichet and her team are engaged in another kind of research tissue engineering. Dr Shoichet is focused on getting nerve cells to repair and regenerate. If successful, treatments based on this work could offer hope to millions of people with spinal-cord injuries.

Dr Michael Sefton is engaged in a different kind of tissue engineering: creating coatings for transplanted material to prevent immune system rejection or destructive clotting. Cells enclosed in a protective capsule that the body’s own mechanisms would not attack could generate insulin for diabetes sufferers, or dopamine for Parkinson’s victims, from within the body itself. The technique also has great potential for new gene therapy approaches, and the increased use of artificial grafts and organs (such as hearts) without the need for constant use of hazardous immunosuppressive and anticoagulant therapies.

With the work of researchers like Professor Andrew Emili, the Donnelly CCBR also expects to be a world-leading institute in the new and growing field of bioinformatics the nexus of information science and biology. Dr Emili’s lab is dedicated to creating a world-leading data store for proteomic information.

In recognition of the crucial importance of bioinformatics in these massive projects, the CCBR has devoted the sixth floor to computational biology and has recruited three new scientists Professor Zhaolei Zhang, Quaid Morris and Michael Brudno to the team. They join Professor Brendan Frey, a scientist in the departments of electrical and computer engineering and computer science, who will have space in the CCBR as well as in his home departments.

The CCBR aims to create an environment that will allow immediate ‘transfer’ of discoveries from one system to another in this way, interesting questions can be quickly identified and the results applied to important biomedical problems. For example, scientists have long used powerful model systems to reveal the basic rules of biology and how cells are regulated during development and how they are perturbed in disease. The CCBR will house scientists working with a variety of model systems, including the humble yeast, a microscopic work, flies and fish.

For example, Professor Henry Krause’s team works with drosophila fruit flies and has devised new methods to identify the hormones that bind to the highly important NHR (nuclear hormone receptor) proteins. NHRs control many of the body’s processes, such as memory, behaviour and aging; a large number of human diseases for example diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s are caused or enhanced by NHR malfunctions. But while these proteins are ideal targets for drug therapies, science has still only identified less than half of the hormones that can affect them. Dr Krause’s work promises to improve the ability of drug developers to identify detrimental side effects before testing the drug in clinical trials.

“The Donnelly CCBR stands as a shining example of what can be achieved when various stakeholders come together with a common goal,” says Eliot Phillipson, president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. “I’m particularly proud of this powerful and innovative new facility, which embodies what the CFI is all about: providing world-class tools to institutions and researchers so they can do the leading-edge research that will benefit not just Canadians, but the world.”