Every once in awhile I get to return to my academic roots and attend a conference where scientists discuss and show off their cutting edge research. University of Toronto’s Medicine by Design symposium on Nov. 28th was one such chance. Medicine by Design is a new platform bringing together more than 90 world leading researchers focused on stem cell research, regenerative medicine and delivering innovative therapies to patients. Although regenerative medicine is an emerging field, it represents both a strength and a strategic priority for the University of Toronto, the City of Toronto and the province of Ontario as a whole.

This sector has even caught the attention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: ”Regenerative medicine is the future….and not only is it the future, it’s a branch of medicine that Canada and the province of Ontario are actually quite good at. The medical advances and innovations happening right here in Toronto are world class.” The Prime Minister made this statement as he announced a $20 million grant to Toronto’s Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine to help establish a stem-cell therapy development facility in Toronto. The funds have been matched by GE Healthcare as part of a landmark public/private collaboration agreement, formally establishing Toronto as an international hub for regenerative medicine. In major recent Toronto region regenerative medicine news, Bayer AG and Versant Ventures announced they are dedicating $295 million to launch Bluerock Therapeutics. Bluerock will have research and development operations based in Toronto, as well as Boston and New York, and seeks develop patient ready iPSC based therapies for cardiovascular and liver diseases.

UofT’s strength in basic research will be the foundational advantage it will apply to developing new opportunities in regenerative medicine. Our collective understanding of stem cell biology is incomplete, and the clearer we see it, the better and more effective our therapies will be. One talk that made an impression on me was about systems theory by researcher Dr. David McMillan. His research shows that basic design principles come into play even in the regulatory systems that guide stem cells and control how these cells sense and communicate with their environment. It has been theorized that regulation systems follows logical rules in cells, but he is able to show and quantify them in his experimental systems to demonstrate the theory behind the interactions.

These insights are important because drugs often fail in trials due to unforeseen interactions or unexpected results. If the fundamental processes underlying these therapies are understood we will likely have better success designing cures. According to David, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is.”

Looking at systems from the minimalistic perspective of the theory of regulatory systems and building the cells from the ground up is a process akin to assembling a house and analyzing each brick. However, you can also take the opposite approach. Dr. McMillan and his lab apply design principles to create solutions that are real-world applicable. That is, designing a product that is low cost, easy to learn, low tech, and simple to transport and store, so that it can be used in clinics all over Canada or even in developing countries.

Keeping these constraints in mind, graduate student Richard Kil in McMillan’s labs designed an inexpensive cell-based biosensor for pathogen detection that satisfies all of these requirements. Richard’s ingenious solution uses yeast-to-yeast communication to detect disease and is innovative, cheap, and easy. He has launched a startup called Viable Solutions around the technology, and is a great example of a Toronto-born innovation that makes great things possible when you combine design thinking and science innovation.

The work of academics in regenerative medicine will change the lives of people all over the world; Canada, Ontario, and Toronto itself have the chance to lead the charge. For these incredibly complex therapies to be cost effective, efficacious and adopted, not only will the biology have to be well understood, but they will have to be well designed. Following my visit to Medicine by Design, it has become clear to me that UofT stands at the forefront of this, and will lead the development of these technologies that we can commercialize for a better world.

Ella is Executive Director of TO Health! She is an experienced business development and marketing professional in the biotechnology, pharma and medical device industries with a track record of closing deals and leading successful marketing and business development programs. Her extensive and growing network of business leaders extends her reach to customers and partners in all key markets in North America and around the world. Ella has an MSc in Medical Genetics from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Dalhousie University.

About TO Health!

TO Health! is an industry-led cluster organization raising the profile of the Toronto region’s Human Health & Sciences (HHS) cluster. As a facilitator of global opportunities for the cluster, TO Health! collaborates with partners locally and globally to accelerate the growth and impact of the Toronto region.

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