U of T's Leah Cowen on Canada’s opportunity to become a genomics 'powerhouse'

Leah Cowen, centre, U of T's vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives, says Canada is an invaluable resource for genomics research in fields such as health, environment, food and agriculture (photo by Steve Southon)

To drive innovation in genomics through commercialization, create socioeconomic growth and cement Canada’s position as a world-leader in genomics research and innovation, the federal government is expected to announce the Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy (PCGS) later this year – funded through an allocation of $400 million announced in the 2021 budget. 

In March, the results of consultations toward the national strategy were released, with participants underlining the opportunity for Canada to establish a clear, long-term vision for genomics in this country. Other specific recommendations made by participants included:

  • Data standards, co-ordination and privacy regulations that enable broad access to and use of data across the genomics ecosystem
  • Increased funding, lab capacity and access to infrastructure and equipment to support research and development
  • De-risking commercialization through the Government of Canada adopting a first purchaser role
  • Specialized training in genomics, bioinformatics and private sector awareness and capacity to employ genomics trainees

While human health remains a primary focus of genomics research, other fields are benefitting from advances in the field. In agriculture, for example, scientists are using genomics as a tool to track biodiversity (biosurveillance) and to understand why some organisms are more resilient to environmental change. As knowledge advances, genomics can be applied to develop mitigation strategies such as using plants to decontaminate soil. The federal government, through Genome Canada, launched the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Food Systems initiative to capitalize on this potential. 

Leah Cowen, vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives at the University of Toronto, is a recognized genomics leader, researcher and entrepreneur. She recently discussed how Canada is preparing to shape and lead the genomics sector. 

The federal government’s consultation toward the launch of a national strategy identifies three key areas of opportunity: national competitiveness through regional strengths, co-ordination among stakeholders, and infrastructure. Where do you see Canada’s opportunities in the future of genomics? 

Canada is a powerhouse in genomics. Its strength in genomics lies in its uniqueness as a jurisdiction with an incredible diversity among its ecosystems and human populations. These strengths position Canada at a global advantage and serve as an invaluable resource for genomics research across fields such as health, environment, food and agriculture.  

On regional strengths, I would suggest that one of Canada’s assets in this sector is the ecosystem in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The GTA encompasses foundational assets like the Toronto Academic Health Science Network (TAHSN) – a network of 14 affiliated hospitals with U of T as the primary research and training hub – as well as more than 10 campus-linked accelerators across our three U of T campuses and catalysts like the MaRS Discovery District and the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine.  

We have remarkable talent and training programs, from fundamental to applied genomics, and a hub of diversity in Toronto. From a genomics point of view, diversity is essential for understanding population-level processes. One-of-a-kind training programs such as CANSSI STAGE offer skills and career development to graduate students and post-docs in high-demand areas of genomics like genetic epidemiology and statistical genetics. In addition, U of T’s flagship masters of science in genetic counselling program provides students with the skills needed to apply their genomics knowledge to clinical settings. 

The GTA is also home to diverse sets of minds that bring different perspectives to tackle biological challenges. Companies like Deep Genomics – Canada’s highest-valued biotech company – use AI and machine learning to develop treatments for genetic disease. 

The expertise, relationships and skills leveraged in these areas are accelerating the pace of genomics discovery and creating significant impact for Canada’s bioeconomy.  

The recently released summary of stakeholder consultations identified data as an area of opportunity. What are your thoughts? 

Canada’s genomics-related data infrastructure is significantly limited in both size and scope relative to international counterparts, impeding the full potential of genomics within Canada. Maximizing the impact of the vast amounts of genomics data currently available requires a strategic and co-ordinated effort to support the development of cutting-edge genomic technologies and leading genomic infrastructure at scale. This involves limiting the existing fragmentation of valuable data assets across Canada, prioritizing open access to data for Canadian researchers and supporting the pipeline of next-generation technology development.   

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL -EBI) is one model for data storage, analysis and management. Canada does not need its own analogous system to the EMBL-EBI but should actively participate and contribute to these international initiatives so that they are available to our researchers.   

Canada is home to a number of deep data portals that are housed within provincial boundaries and some national portals, such as CIHI and CANUE, offer great data points for researchers. If we can integrate data repositories and standards, we can garner significant understanding and benefits. 

Critical to the utility of genomics data infrastructure is the necessary representation of all individuals in genetic data. The Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy should prioritize establishing a national approach to meaningfully engaging underrepresented populations in the collection, management and analysis of genomics data.  

How can the national strategy address diversity, equity and inclusion – another area stakeholders identified as significant?  

Addressing the historic inequities and underrepresentation of marginalized groups in biomedical research and in genomics data will strengthen the value of Canada’s genomic enterprise.  

There are also many ethical, social sciences and humanities components to genomics that Canada can inform the appropriate use and privacy of genetic and genomic information – just as it can with the inclusion of diverse populations in genetic research.  

The Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy should recognize universities as partners in supporting these actions. U of T, for example, is committed to equity, diversity and inclusion in all its activities, including genomic innovation, addressing health disparities and fostering equity in genomics-related areas.  

The Data Sciences Institute at U of T accelerates the impact of data sciences across fields like genomics to address pressing societal questions around inequity and the use of new statistical and algorithmic techniques to drive positive social change.  

The Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society is also a resource that can convene and amplify conversations on ethics and access to genomics careers and applications. This is also one of our strengths of U of T – our phenomenal breadth of research expertise. 

What specific elements are you looking to see in the Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy? 

The critical piece is ensuring that the strategy supports the full continuum of innovation.   

This includes support for discovery-based science. Often the focus winds up being on terminal parts of the pipeline such as translation, commercialization or implementation without supporting the early-stage work. This is short-sighted as work at the discovery stage enables new ideas and the knowledge from which different applications are born.  

CRISPR is a great example of how fundamental discovery science changed the world and created a technology that impacts how we think about disease treatment and virtually every aspect of modifying biology on the planet. CRISPR is a cost-effective genetic engineering tool that will continue to increase options for treating diseases among humans and all organisms. 

Talent will also be a significant element in determining Canada’s genomics capacity to lead. Every country in the world is thinking about genomics. There is competition for great talent and great talent can go anywhere in the world – so investment is critical for Canada to retain a leadership position.  

Are there approaches to training in your lab that you think would successfully scale to a national approach? 

Training for genomics is interdisciplinary. This is where Canada has an advantage with strengths across fields that inform genomics science and applications.  

I think about how to develop talent in my own lab a great deal to ensure that trainees are enabled to reach their potential. We ensure that students and post-doctoral fellows are trained at the intersection of fields such as functional genomics, structural genomics, chemical genomics, molecular genetics and computational biology to develop and work with the next generation of technologies. In our broader community, we also focus on training in related fields such as genetic epidemiology, statistics, computer science, AI and quantum computing to unleash the full potential of genomics research.  

Universities are powerful players in providing specialized and interdisciplinary training for Canada’s genomic workforce.  

For example, researchers at U of T’s Institute for Biomedical Engineering and the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research are inventing and applying new technologies to target therapies for schizophrenia and other psychiatric conditions, testing the effects of human mutations in yeast to help clinicians diagnose patients more accurately and monitoring and managing sulfur compounds in mines to limit toxicity and contamination impacts. 

How has your experience as an entrepreneur in this sector shaped the training offered in your lab? 

I was able to use my academic genomics research on fungal pathogens to enable the translation of fundamental discoveries for treating invasive fungal reactions – a growing public health crisis. Participating in the University of Toronto Early-Stage Technology (UTEST) program helped our team launch Bright Angel Therapeutics, a biotechnology company focused on developing novel antifungal drugs that has attracted interest and investment from around the world. We talk about the opportunities to build on the critical skills taught in the lab to become entrepreneurs.   

Read the original article at U of T’s Office of Government Relations

Read more about U of T’s industry partnerships in life sciences

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