Lab Canada

Top research centre opens at McMaster

Hamilton, ON – McMaster University has officially opened its new $71-million research facility called the Michael G DeGroote Centre of Learning and Discovery. The complex will eventually house more than 250 scientists who will work together in specialized collaborative teams to speed the discovery of new medicines.

The opening of the new complex is intended to put Canada on the international map of advanced gene-based therapeutics research into treatments for breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, West Nile, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, SARS, among other life-threatening diseases.

The teams working there will include the:

– Centre for Functional Genomics, which seeks to discover gene function;

– Centre for Gene Therapeutics, which develops new gene-based vaccines and conducts human clinical trials;

– Institute for Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Research, which conducts research into how to target cancer cells;

– Robert E Fitzhenry Vector Laboratory, which produces the delivery agents used to transport gene therapies into patients;

– Allergen, which focuses on asthma and allergy research; and

– headquarters for a North American-wide study on West Nile virus.

“This new centre puts McMaster at the leading edge of finding cures and treatments for some of the most disabling and life-threatening diseases,” says Dr John Kelton, dean and vice-president of McMaster’s Faculty of Health Sciences, and dean of the Michael G DeGroote School of Medicine. “The facilities will also help in building a world-class team in immunology and virology, and I fully expect that there will be some Nobel Prize winners as a result of the work that will be done here.”

The centre, constructed over the past two years, was made possible by a $26-million contribution from Michael DeGroote and his family. The donation is part of a $105-million gift to the Health Sciences faculty, and the largest single donation by an individual to any institution in Canada. Other funding came from the provincial and federal governments, as well as private donors.

The synergy of bringing various scientific disciplines together is also reinforced in the design of the building. Many laboratories are ‘open concept’, encouraging greater collaboration. There are common lunchroom areas where scientists, researchers, and students can plug in their laptops and gather to talk.

Scientists will also have access to top-line equipment, including a robotic microscope – one of only three in the world – that can make up to one million measurements in reading the responses of cells to drugs and other stimuli.

“Nowhere else in Canada – and in very few other places in the world – do they have this scientific talent, state-of-the-art equipment, and infrastructure dedicated to gene-based medicine all located in a single building,” says Jack Gauldie, head of the Centre for Gene Therapeutics.

The multi-disciplinary approach means that investigators at the Institute for Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Research, headed by Mick Bhatia, will use the Centre for Functional Genomics, led by John Hassell, as the basic platform for their cell and gene studies. In turn, the two research arms will work with the Centre for Gene Therapeutics as it studies gene manipulation that might lead to vaccines against cancer and infectious diseases.

The Robert E Fitzhenry Vector Laboratory will provide the vector agents used in delivering gene therapies. Vectors are essentially a disabled common cold virus that has been injected with DNA. The Fitzhenry Laboratory is the first Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) university lab in Canada. GMP regulations ensure the identity, potency, and purity of pharmaceutical products.

The DeGroote Centre will also develop natural synergies in research on the body’s immune system as it relates to viruses, cancers and infectious diseases. Viral investigation is fundamental to creating vaccines. Molecular virologists study how a body responds to viruses to learn how they can fortify the human immune system. The vaccines they develop can then stimulate the immune system so it repels or at least manages an infectious disease.

All this research holds great promise for personalized medicines, in which scientists use a patient’s own genetic material in developing vaccines and other treatments to stimulate the immune system. It also allows scientists to tailor specific drugs to individuals. McMaster is in clinical trials now with a cell-based vaccine aimed at strengthening immune system protection in breast cancer patients and is looking at trials for a vaccine to fight lymphocytic leukemia.