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Researchers hope $114-million grant will make Toronto a hub for stem cell research

Peter Zandstra, professor in the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto and one of the architects of the Medicine by Design program is shown in a handout photo.

James Poremba/THE CANADIAN PRESS

In the coming revolution in regenerative medicine, Toronto has won a chance to become one of the world's preeminent body shops, a place where made-to-order cells, tissues and organs are developed and manufactured to improve health and extend life.

Or so hope scientists behind a new University of Toronto-led research program dubbed Medicine by Design that has been awarded $114-million over seven years by the federal government – the largest single research grant in the university's history. The money will be used primarily to fund scientists and projects that will enhance a key segment of Canada's largest concentration of biomedical researchers.

The announcement by Ed Holder, Minister of State for Science and Technology, is the first of five expected this week as the government unveils the initial round of winners of its Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), a $1.5-billion reservoir of cash that was earmarked for university-based research in the 2014 federal budget. It is also the latest in an ongoing rollout of funding-related events that are popping up across the country with increasing regularity ahead of the upcoming federal election.

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Money for the U of T program comes at a time when technologies based on stem cells – generic cells that can give rise to many cell types – appear poised to transform how doctors deal with a broad range of conditions from heart disease to neurological disorders.

But while the U of T grant is significant for a Canadian research institution, and the largest expected from the government this week, it is modest by global standards in a rapidly advancing field. By comparison, the state of California, which has a similar-sized population to Canada, committed $3-billion (U.S.) toward stem-cell research starting in 2004.

Yet, Toronto is well positioned to play a leading role in an accelerating field, said Peter Zandstra, Canada Research Chair in Stem Cell Bioengineering and one of the new program's architects. In recent years, U of T and its surrounding hospitals have become a fertile crossroads where biologists, engineers and computer scientists have converged on the challenge of how to rebuild the human body when it ails.

"We may be able to leap frog because of that," said Dr. Zandstra, who added that the cross-disciplinary setting together with access to a large pool of clinicians and their patients should help make Toronto a launching pad for new technologies and companies that leverage the growing importance of stem cells in medicine.

"The biotechnology industry in Boston has done that really well for proteins and drugs. It would be great if we could do it here for cells and tissues," said Dr. Zandstra.

Stem cells were first identified by Toronto researchers Ernest McCulloch and James Till in the early 1960s and were eventually shown to carry the same biological malleability that allows an embryo to develop from a single cell into skin, bones, muscles, organs and all the other tissues required to make a complete organism. Medical researchers have long sought to harness stem cells to regenerate aging and diseased tissue. Growing numbers of clinical trials involving stem cells are currently underway around the world.

As the lead-off project funded under the CFREF, the new program fits the criteria that the government last year said it would apply to proposals submitted to the highly competitive fund – namely to build on existing strengths within Canada's research universities to enhance global competitiveness.

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"I think it's becoming increasingly clear that there will be substantial benefits for this kind of research. If you're leading in a particular research field you garner the benefits first," said Dr. Till, now retired, who was on hand to hear Mr. Holder's announcement in Toronto on Tuesday.

Michael May, president of the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, a not-for-profit organization that supports the translation of stem-cell-related discoveries into marketable products for patients, said the new program would have both clinical and economic impact.

"Canada can be the place where we do advanced manufacturing in cells," he said. "The challenge is, how do you manufacture cells at commercial scales. This is where this convergence of engineering and biology is important."

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