‘We need to prepare’: U of T’s Christine Allen on investing in biomanufacturing, life sciences research

Christine Allen

(Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

With an eye to supporting Canada’s pandemic recovery and preparing for future threats to public health, the federal government recently announced $2.2 billion in investment over seven years in the life sciences.

“These growing fields are not only critical to our safety, but are fast-growing sectors that support well-paying jobs and attract investment,” the budget document reads.

The investments are welcomed by the University of Toronto and will help the university to modernize critical lab infrastructure, support cutting-edge research and industry partnerships, and train the next generation of researchers, says Christine Allen, associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives and professor in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy.

She added that, with the new investments in these key areas, there is a need to work together across sectors to develop a pan-Canadian bio-innovation and life sciences strategy.

U of T News recently spoke with Allen about what the federal budget means for U of T and life sciences research in Canada.

Why is it necessary to invest in life sciences and biomanufacturing?

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of investing in research and innovation in our society. Within less than a year from the first case of COVID-19, two vaccines were developed by researchers around the world and later approved by Canadian regulators. That was only possible because the vaccines were not developed from a standing start. They were based on research that had been underway for decades.

Investment in biomanufacturing – the manufacturing of biological therapies such as vaccines – is critical to ensure the health security of the population, support the development of therapies including biologics and cell-based therapies, and prevent locally developed biomedical technologies from moving outside of Canada for manufacturing and commercialization.

But biomanufacturing capacity can’t thrive on its own. A strong biomanufacturing industry requires upstream investments in areas such as training a capable workforce. Where can this be done better than in academia?

Entrepreneurship is another key element to ensure bio-medical discoveries are translated into effective treatments by the creation of startups and attracting large companies and venture capital. At U of T, we have numerous industry partnerships that provide students and post-doctoral researchers with opportunities to commercialize discoveries and develop skills in demand by industry.

It’s important to invest in a pipeline of innovative research, so you have something to bio-manufacture. These breakthroughs take place in academic labs.

We need each of these elements for a successful national biomanufacturing strategy that fosters a vibrant local industry.

How will some of the measures announced in the federal budget affect U of T?

We advocated very strongly for investments in the life sciences, including funding for discovery research and infrastructure. The government came through with $250 million toward a new biomedical research program to be delivered by our federal granting agencies, which we expect will provide a big boost to our researchers.

On the infrastructure side, we were quite hopeful to see an investment in biomedical lab infrastructure. There are specified containment levels required to work with certain viruses or infectious agents. For SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus responsible for COVID-19, you need to work in a containment level three (CL3) lab.

Our CL3 lab at U of T is the go-to facility in the GTA, used by leading researchers, hospital partners, government agencies and industry throughout the pandemic. It is the only operational CL3 facility that researchers at U of T and the Toronto Academic Health Science Network (TAHSN) can use, so it’s a very important facility. However, it’s more than 20 years old and in need of renewal.

The facility was underutilized and struggled to remain operational prior to the pandemic because the funding for that type of research dried up after the SARS outbreak. But since COVID-19, research in this area has become very popular – and urgent – all over again.

We fortunately did see $500 million in the federal budget earmarked for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the research infrastructure fund. Further details about the fund are still to come, but it appears it could provide a mechanism to help us renew and modernize our facility. 

In its budget documents, the government says it’s making these investments to prepare for the next pandemic. How will they improve Canada’s readiness?

If you were to speak to Scott Gray-Owen, a professor in the department of molecular genetics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, who runs the CL3 facility, he would say we would have been in a much different place if we had continued to do the research we had started during the SARS outbreak.

There will be another pandemic at some point, and we need to prepare ourselves so that we’re not scrambling. At the same time, there are other emerging concerns such as antimicrobial resistance. These investments will bolster a life sciences ecosystem that can respond to these threats and create high-quality jobs and growth.

The budget also contains more than $1 billion in funding to support company creation, scale up and training activities in the life sciences sector, including investments to grow clinical research capacity.

At U of T, we have over 230 life sciences startups that have emerged from our ecosystem and they have raised capital in the billions. However, there is an increasing desire to see domestic sources of capital for our growing firms, and the government has earmarked new funding through the renewed Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative to try to incentivize more Canadian venture capital for life sciences startups.

Could the new investments benefit other U of T infrastructure needs?

As I mentioned earlier, the other area requiring investment is biomanufacturing.

There’s significant interest – not just on behalf of U of T, but also our industry partners – in setting up a biomanufacturing lab for training and innovation that includes modular, flexible equipment for process improvement, automated platforms to accelerate discoveries and pilot facilities to transfer academic innovations into industrial-scale manufacturing processes.

Such a facility would hold tremendous value in the training of students and post-doctoral fellows as well as retraining of individuals who have been out of the workforce, or who work in that space but need to learn new techniques or approaches. 

The federal government is investing $365 million in Black, women and Indigenous entrepreneurs and innovators? How will that help U of T support a diverse research ecosystem?

This is very welcome news – and it aligns well with some of the work that we’re doing at U of T. We recently launched an Indigenous research network and a Black research network at the university.

We also have Black post-doctoral fellowships and strategies to recruit Black and Indigenous faculty members.

Several U of T professors and researchers, including Maydianne Andrade, vice-dean faculty affairs, equity and success at U of T Scarborough and a Canada Research Chair in Integrative Behavioural Ecology, were involved in the creation of the Canadian Black Scientists Network this spring.

We’re also doing work in the entrepreneurship space, with a Black Founders Network in development. 

How will these federal investments affect students?

Students are the next generation of talent, and we’re going to be relying on them to address the next pandemic and a host of other challenges. They are critical to the growth and development of our economy.

This has been a really challenging time. The major investment we saw in this area was through Mitacs, a national nonprofit that aims to support research and training.

The federal investment will support 85,000 work-integrated learning placements – that's incredible.

What I like about Mitacs is it brings post-secondary institutions and industry together. Now more than ever, we need to be working together across industry and academia to ensure that research is focused on practical solutions to real-world industrial challenges.

It’s a win-win for students and industry partners. It provides students with hands-on training in a real-world setting, while companies gain access to new knowledge, techniques and approaches.

The hope is that students will be hired on a permanent basis beyond their training period or gain experience that will serve them well in the future.

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