U of T news

From personalized medicine to chronic inflammatory disease

Connaught invests in major health challenges

Professor Brenda Andrews and Associate Professor Jennifer Gommerman

U of T’s own research funding program – the Connaught Fund – broke the mould this year with its $1 million Global Challenge Prize, awarding two projects instead of the usual one.

Projects led by two Faculty of Medicine scientists –  Brenda Andrews and Jennifer Gommerman – will each receive $1 million.

Professor Andrews, director of U of T’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, is leading a project focussed on the hot field of personalized medicine. The project is called Connaught Network for Modeling and Mapping Complex Disease: addressing the global challenge to understand our personal genomes.

Gommerman, an associate professor and scientist in the Department of Immunology at U of T, is heading up an investigation into the startling incidence of chronic inflammatory diseases in South Asian immigrants raised in Canada. The project is called Global Migration and Chronic Inflammatory Disease – The GEMINI Study (Generational differences in Environmental exposures caused by Human Migration: Impact on Incidence of Inflammatory Disease).

The Global Challenge Prize was launched in 2011 by Connaught to bring together U of T’s leading researchers from multiple disciplines with innovators from other sectors to heighten the university’s contribution to issues facing global society. Proposals come from the U of T research community, involving large, interdisciplinary teams, and are subjected to the highest level of international peer review.

“There were some marvellous proposals from U of T researchers this year. It was a difficult choice deciding on which projects we would award,” says Professor Paul Young, vice-president (research and innovation) and Connaught Committee chair. “On behalf of the committee, congratulations to Professors Andrews and Gommerman and their teams. I would also like to extend our deep thanks to the other teams that applied.”

Young notes that two projects were awarded because “these two submissions were of extremely high quality in every way – urgency of the challenge being investigated, the interdisciplinary nature of the proposed research and the clarity of the plan. These are extremely important topics and the research into them will benefit people around the world far into the future.”

Andrews’ says “our big picture goal is to make a major contribution to our understanding of the basic elements of genetics that have remained unsolved since Mendel’s first discovery of the inheritance of specific traits in pea plants over 200 years ago.”

Her team’s project comes at a time when technological advances haven enabled thousands of people to have their genomes sequenced, giving scientists the ability to catalogue the vast variation in the human genome. This means, in theory, that we should be able to identify specific differences in DNA that lead to inherited diseases.

The problem is that we don’t know how to properly interpret personal genome sequences and therefore we can’t predict which genetic variations are linked to disease. Scientists call this the “missing heritability” problem.

“This means that we cannot embrace the idea of personalized medicine until we make a new leap in our understanding of human genetics,” says Andrews. “The Connaught Global Challenge funding will enable us to develop new methods and approaches that will facilitate our understanding of an individual’s unique genetic code, which will ultimately lead to new paradigms for personalized medicine.

Gommerman’s project begins with the explosion in the migration of people around the world, from one country to another, and questions how this migration will impact health and disease development. Her group’s focus is on chronic inflammatory diseases, such as Types 1 and 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis.

“Chronic inflammatory diseases are highly prevalent in Canada and impose an enormous burden on our society,” says Gommerman. “South Asian immigrants raised in Canada have an unexplained increased risk of developing such diseases. Thanks to the Connaught investment, our team will explore the environmental triggers that are driving increased incidence of chronic inflammatory diseases in this community. The GEMINI initiative has the potential to transform our understanding of these chronic diseases and impact future health policies.”