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Where complex childhood diseases are under a microscope

Three years ago, Jake Da Luz found it impossible to do what most other three-year-olds could - walk and feed himself.

He was diagnosed with systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis, an illness that made most movement painful.

"Everything they had to offer him through medicine just wasn't working," recalled Dianne Da Luz, his mother.

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Now, the six-year-old is playing hockey for the first time after being part of a research program at the Hospital For Sick Children. He's given medication that blocks the cells that cause damage to his bones as part of a five-year drug trial.

It's that type of research that found a new home within the Toronto hospital on Wednesday. Spaces for research and studies were previously located throughout the hospital; now, they're coming together in the $23.2-million Centre for the Study of Complex Childhood Diseases.

On Wednesday, the centre's $2.5-million Physiological Research Unit was opened - the "final connecting piece," said Mary Jo Haddad, president and CEO of the hospital.

The unit, 3,770 square feet of renovated space on the hospital's fifth floor, has a research kitchen for experimental diets, space for exercise testing and Canada's only technology to measure the lung functions of babies.

"It will tell us more about how asthma develops in the first year of life and we've never been able to do that before," said Felix Ratjen, medical director of the research facility.

There's a "PEA POD" and "BOD POD," devices that measure body mass index of babies and older children respectively.

Healthy children will also be tested for comparison. Researchers will study everything from cystic fibrosis to obesity.

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"One of the things that we expect from this facility is that we can bring together different researchers," he said. "That's how good research works, you get ideas for your co-workers."

For the Da Luz family, it also means more space for patients and their families.

The family, from Etobicoke, was settling into a new general patient assessment room Wednesday morning. They still go to the hospital every two weeks for Jake's treatment.

The new space is "pretty good," Jake said as he played video games while sporting his new hockey sweater.

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