“This is Where We’ll Find Cures Today’s Doctors Can’t Even Imagine”
The Donnelly Centre’s Powerful Interdisciplinary Approach
BY LLOYD RANG
It's not uncommon to see an older, impeccably dressed gentleman roaming the halls of the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, the Faculty of Medicine’s state-of the art hub for interdisciplinary basic science research. Occasionally, he’ll stop to chat with a student or researcher in the hallways.
What most people don’t realize is that the gentleman is none other than Terry Donnelly, the visionary philanthropist, lawyer and retired businessman whose support helped create the centre. And if you take a moment to speak to him, you’ll quickly discover he’s more passionate and articulate about the ultimate purpose of basic science than most people outside the field. For example, he’s quick to draw the connection between the research being done in the laboratories and the clinical care being offered down the street in the university affiliated hospitals.
“This building is a beacon of hope for the people lying in the hospital beds on University Avenue — the hope that in their lifetimes, cures will come from the breakthroughs in basic science here at U of T,” says Donnelly. “It’s because of our hope for the people in those hospital beds that we, in the fullness of time, will come up with the answers to the illnesses that plague mankind.”
The Donnelly Centre — which was built in 2005 — is like no other medical research space in the country. It’s a collaboration among the Faculties of Medicine, Applied Science and Engineering, Arts and Science and Pharmacy. Medical researchers work alongside physicists, computer scientists and pharmaceutical scientists to develop new approaches to treating — and curing — diseases at the cellular and molecular level. It’s an approach that has attracted a number of young, talented researchers to the Donnelly Centre in the last nine years.
“Right now,” said Brenda Andrews, the centre’s Director, “the scope of new technologies and the possibilities they present are endless. When you have people working in a collaborative, multidisciplinary space like this one, using the latest technology, the potential to do important work is just extraordinary.”
One such researcher is Sachdev Sidhu. After graduating from Simon Fraser University with his PhD in 1996, Sidhu went on to work at Genentech Inc. in San Francisco, where he spent 10 years developing antibody therapies. He joined the Faculty in 2008, attracted by the possibilities of working in the relatively new field of protein engineering at the Donnelly. Today, he runs a unique laboratory in the Donnelly Centre, is a Senior Investigator for the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and a Professor in U of T’s Department of Molecular Genetics. Prof. Sidhu is one of a new generation of Canadian researchers making their mark in the basic sciences. His work has drawn the praise of his peers and, recently, some important funding as well.
In August of 2014, the federal government announced that it was investing $15 million over the next five years to fund the Centre for the Commercialization of Antibodies and Biologics (CCAB). In its description of the award, the government said that “Antibodies are the fastest growing area of therapeutics and have been used in cancer, infectious diseases and autoimmune diseases. CCAB will solidify Canada’s foothold in a $50 billion worldwide industry by validating antibody candidates, testing research tools, and maintaining antibody libraries accessible to industry. Drawing on research conducted at the Toronto Recombinant Antibody Centre, CCAB will also address issues related to manufacturing products at the quality and scale needed for commercial success.”
What this means for Sidhu and his centre is that the Federal government not only recognizes the importance of his work scientifically speaking, but sees commercial application in it as well.
“What we’re doing is looking at over 100 cell surface proteins that we know or suspect are connected to cancer. We use antibodies to interrogate the prevalence of proteins in cancer and, from there, use the antibodies to inhibit or turn off the protein and thus inhibit the cancer itself,” says Sidhu. “So far we have around a dozen promising candidates for further research which, we hope, will result in commercialization in the next 5 years. This is faster than the industry standard for drug development — which is about 10 years — largely because of the infrastructure we have here at the Donnelly.”
“The dream,” Sidhu says, “Is to find tailored antibodies that we can use to explicitly target specific cancers. Rather than subjecting patients to a broad, shotgun approach like chemotherapy, we can develop drugs that target specific pathways, making cancer a much more treatable disease.”
It’s this kind of work that excites Andrews, who has been leading the research at the Donnelly Centre since the beginning.
“In basic science, researchers are always thinking about the eventual application of our work and how it will help patients,” says Andrews. “I think what we’re seeing in our students and our investigators these days is a growing sense of expertise and excitement for the entire endeavor. They’re looking at the whole track from discovery through to the therapeutic treatment.”
Other researchers at the Donnelly share that sentiment. Jason Moffat — a former student of Andrews — came to the centre in 2006, following postdoctoral work at MIT and Harvard. His research focuses on cell growth, proliferation and differentiation and, in particular, how cancer cells reprogram in response to stress or altered genotype. Moffatt shares space in the Donnelly with Sidhu, and has a similar perspective on the changing nature of basic research.
“When I was an undergrad at Queen’s, I was the first student in a co-op program that placed me in an industry setting,” says Moffat. “Today’s students see the relationship between academia and industry much differently. There is obviously still an important place for academic research, but increasingly I think we see ourselves in partnership rather than as separate entities. I think that ultimately has huge benefit for patients.”
Certainly that same notion was on the mind of Donnelly himself when he first helped create the centre, and it’s very much on his mind today, too.
“To get the benefits of research, we need to hasten the move to market,” he says. “This is closing the circle. We’re about making a difference to the lives of people who don’t enjoy perfect health. The successful commercialization of these basic research breakthroughs will benefit the patients and also create jobs and tax revenue.”
The best way to do that, says Donnelly, is through an interdisciplinary approach.
“Six bright scientists working on the problem in different disciplines is better than six scientists taking the same approach,” he says. “It’s exhilarating to see the commitment and dedication of our researchers who toil here day and night, around the clock searching for elusive cures to cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s and more. We have a man here who has restored the sight of blind mice. The day is coming when we’ll be able to make the blind see again. This is where we’re going to have body parts developed, and cures which today’s doctors can’t even imagine.”
“I think what unites everyone around the world is that we all yearn for a life that’s full and complete,” says Donnelly. “No matter how long or short our lives may be, we want a life that is free from threat of major disease or the devastation of a major injury. The onlyway that yearning can be satisfied is through research, research and more research. And that’s why I’m at U of T, supporting institutions and organizations that have the capacity and the people to make a difference in the lives of people everywhere.”
“What we’re assembling here is a group of dedicated scientists, who, along with others around the world are creating better health care for everyone. The payoff for the researchers is recognition that they have contributed to the wellbeing of a patient who has never heard of the researcher or the University of Toronto — but the patient knows that someone in basic science has made a difference to his or her life.”
As the Donnelly Centre begins its 10th year, that work and that unique approach is fully underway in labs like the CCAB. In the years to come it’s the hope of everyone involved — donors and researchers, administrators and students — that the real payoff will come in the form of better patient care for people around the world.