On November 28 local and international leaders of the regenerative medicine (RM) community gathered at the MaRS Centre in Toronto for the first ever Medicine by Design (MbD) Symposium. The event marked the first year of the MbD program at the University of Toronto (U of T). This initiative was established based on a $114 million grant from the federal government – the largest in U of T’s history. Toronto has a legacy of innovation in stem cell biology and RM, beginning with the discovery of stem cells by Till and McCulloch in 1961. The symposium showcased new research that will help MbD achieve its mandate of supporting transformative advances in RM that will have real impacts on the lives of patients.
I was thrilled to participate as a speaker, but this time I wasn’t talking about science. Instead, I was representing CCRM, and sharing economic data on Canada’s RM industry. The burgeoning global RM market is creating shifts in industry – more on this below. For Canada to be successful, we must first understand how we are positioned relative to other regions in the RM landscape.
The data tell us that while Canada is strong in RM research and innovation, we need to improve our ability to commercialize those discoveries (the reason why CCRM received government funding in the first place). One of the ways we can do that is to create better access to funds for RM start-ups. Our analysis shows that when Canadian RM start-ups are compared to similar companies in other regions, they fall short in their ability to raise venture capital dollars.
For instance, from 2000 to 2016 Canadian RM companies secured $2 million in venture capital funding. In comparison, RM start-ups in California raised over $2 billion in funding during this same period. While this funding gap appears daunting, we can also look at it as an opportunity. Our analysis has clearly identified better access to capital as a success factor for the Canadian RM industry—if we focus our efforts here we are likely to see benefits.
The theme of Canada’s research excellence in RM was reinforced throughout the day by exciting talks from MbD investigators, and members of the MbD scientific advisory board. The speakers told the audience about their work the in the areas of stem cell biology, synthetic biology, bioengineering and gene therapy. MbD researches are working on a diverse set of scientific questions, and developing new approaches to treating a number of conditions including cancer, heart attack, and neurodegenerative disease. There was too much good science to summarize in one post. Check out the MbD website for a description of the projects.
One of the highlights of the day was the keynote address by Nadia Rosenthal, Scientific Director of the Jackson Laboratory. Dr. Rosenthal shared her compelling work on the role of the immune system in regeneration. Dr. Rosenthal uses the salamander—an organism that can re-grow amputated limbs—to study regeneration. Her work highlights how basic science in developmental biology can inform our understanding of RM.
Trainees are an important focus for MbD, and the symposium underscored some of their great work. Mina Ogawa (Supervisor: Gordon Keller), Siraj Zahr (Supervisor: Freda Miller) and Peter Aldridge (Supervisor: Shana Kelley) received awards for the top poster presentations.
Part of the mission of MbD is to commercialize new technologies, and get them from the bench to the bedside. MbD partnered with the investment firm Blueline Bioscience to award a prize in therapeutic translation to trainee Ashton Trotman-Grant for his poster presentation. Ashton is a PhD student in Juan Carlos Zuniga-Pflucker’s lab at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. His work in the emerging field of cancer immunotherapy is focused on developing new technology for the generation of T-cells that could help cancer patients fight chemotherapy-induced immunodeficiency.
The day’s events were not without some fun and games. Throughout the day attendees were encouraged to tweet. A prize for the best tweet was awarded to Maria Abou Chakra for her wonderfully creative picture summaries of every talk. You can catch up on some top tweets from the day by scrolling through MbD’s storify.
The symposium showcased Toronto’s strengths in RM, and highlighted that we are uniquely positioned to translate our research excellence into health care and economic impacts.
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