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U of T researchers receive more than $100 million in new funding

Milica Radisic, whose research focuses on growing 3D models of human organs, is one of two dozen researchers awarded funding through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (photo by Caz Zyvatkauskas)

Mice and rats have long been unwitting test subjects for drug companies – even though their furry little bodies don’t mimic human physiology very well. 

But research by Milica Radisic, a professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, has helped open the door to a much better option: testing pharmaceuticals on human organ tissue grown in three dimensions in the lab. 

That’s what Radisic and her co-researchers are hoping to accomplish with the creation of the Ontario-Quebec centre for organ-on-a-chip engineering, one of several U of T-led projects to receive funding Thursday from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, or CFI. 

“Placing cells in these controlled, micro-fabricated 3D environments allows you to precisely control the mechanical properties and matrix around the cells, as well as flow input and output,” said Radisic, who is a Canada Research Chair in Functional Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering. “It enables researchers to go to the next level and capture specific cell functions.

“We hope this will enable us to discover better drugs.”

The centre – a partnership between U of T, McMaster University, Ryerson University, McGill University and the University Health Network – will receive nearly $4.2 million from CFI to further develop and scale up production of tissue models for the heart, kidney, liver, placenta and tumours, as well as develop tools to analyze their performance. 

Radisic’s lab has made particular progress growing heart cells on a biodegradable scaffold built from thin layers of polymer that includes an intricate channel pattern to replicate blood vessels. She credits the success of the technology, called AngioChip, for helping the organ-on-a-chip project secure the necessary funding for its launch.

“Our goal is to be a truly national centre for organ-on-a-chip engineering that will benefit researchers across Canada,” Radisic said.

Two dozen researchers from U of T, including faculty based at partner hospitals, are associated with projects awarded $106.6 million by CFI to further research in everything from smart transportation to the evolution of distant galaxies. 

“This funding will bolster important research that not only creates knowledge, but contributes to important advances in fields that range from health care to smart, sustainable cities – helping drive innovation in Canada’s economy in the process,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation. 

In all, CFI awarded more than $554 million to 117 new projects at universities, colleges and research hospitals across the country. It passed a significant milestone in the process, having funded more than 10,000 projects since it began in 1997.

“The Innovation Fund encourages institutions and researchers to think big and strive to be global leaders by conducting world-class research,” said Kirsty Duncan, the federal minister of science, in a statement. 

“This funding pushes researchers to aim higher in their pursuits by collaborating across disciplines, institutions and sectors.”

Some of the U of T researchers who were awarded funding are literally aiming at the stars.

Two astronomers from U of T’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics are involved with research projects that received nearly $8.7 million in combined funding. Professor Bryan Gaensler, the institute’s director, will use his share of the funding, about $3.5 million, to allow Canada to play a major role in the Very Large Array Sky Survey, which aims to make a radio map of the entire sky in unprecedented detail.

Assistant Professor Suresh Sivanandam, meantime, will use nearly $5.2 million in funding to develop an infrared spectrograph for the Gemini Observatory that will produce detailed and sensitive infrared images of the sky, allowing astronomers to study some of the most distant objects in the universe. 

“These projects superbly position the Dunlap Institute for national and international leadership,” Gaensler said in a statement. 

“We’re excited to now flex our muscles and build big, new teams that will develop the tools and equipment needed for 21st century astronomy.”

 

Here is a list (alphabetical by surname) of U of T researchers who are affiliated with projects that will receive CFI funding:

  • Brenda Andrews (Faculty of Medicine), Q-Cell: Quantitative single cell and cell population analysis to link genotype to phenotype
  • John Brumell (Faculty of Medicine, SickKids), Electron microscopy to advance 3-dimensional study of cells in health and disease
  • Graham Collingridge (Faculty of Medicine), Translating synaptic plasticity using advanced optophysiology
  • Gregory Czarnota (Faculty of Medicine, Sunnybrook), Combined MRI-Linac ultrasound therapy instrumentation
  • Bryan Gaensler (Faculty of Arts & Science), Unlocking the radio sky with next-generation survey astronomy
  • Peter Herman (Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering), Lab-in-Fibre: Smart glass probing and distributed sensing microsystems
  • Kullervo Hynynen (Faculty of Medicine, Sunnybrook), Advanced neurotherapeutics involving MRI guidance of transcranial focused ultrasound
  • Young-June Kim (Faculty of Arts & Science), Thermoelectric materials research consortium
  • Peter Krieger (Faculty of Arts & Science), Upgrades to the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider
  • Shoo Lee (Faculty of Medicine, Sinai), Toronto perinatal brain protection research collaboration
  • Alberto Leon-Garcia (Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering), Smart city IoT testbed
  • Christopher McCulloch (Faculty of Dentistry), Fibrosis network
  • Michael Moran (Faculty of Medicine, SickKids), Infrastructure for the analysis of disease proteins
  • Laurence Pelletier (Faculty of Medicine, Sinai), From cells to tissues: Spatiotemporal modeling of organogenesis in health and disease
  • Milos Popovic (Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, University Health Network), The centre for advancing neurotechnological innovation to application 
  • Martin Post (Faculty of Medicine, SickKids), Centre for advanced pediatric imaging and therapy for obesity and lung
  • Milica Radisic (Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering), Ontario-Quebec centre for organ-on-a-chip engineering
  • Daniela Rotin (Faculty of Medicine, SickKids), 3D-ORG: 3D screening infrastructure for tissue organoids and model organisms
  • John Rubinstein (Faculty of Medicine, SickKids), Resource for high-resolution high-throughput biomolecular cryo-EM
  • Jennifer Ryan (Faculty of Medicine, Baycrest), Memory as a dynamic system: implications for aging, clinical interventions and technological innovations. 
  • Suresh Sivanandam (Faculty of Arts & Science), Gemini IRMOS: The pathfinder for the thirty meter telescope’s infrared multi-object integral-field spectrograph
  • John Sled (Faculty of Medicine, SickKids), MRI of the mouse: linking structure, function, and disease
  • Bradly Wouters (Faculty of Medicine, University Health Network), Princess Margaret Cancer Centre precision medicine program
  • Graham Wright (Faculty of Medicine), Preclinical platform expansion for cardiovascular interventions: Electrophysiology and regenerative medicine