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A banner year

By Matthew Pariselli  •  December 17, 2019

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Jon Dellandrea, Dr. Andy Smith, Julius, Deborah Gordon and Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-PflückerDr. Julie HalletDrs. Nir Lipsman, Kullervo Hynynen and Sandra BlackDr. David AndrewsDrs. JoAnne McLaurin (left), Meaghan O’Reilly (centre) and Bojana Stefanovic (right)Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic DevelopmentUndergrads presented their researchIllustration of T cellsDr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-PflückerDr. Kullervo HynynenDr. Michael Julius

From basic science discoveries to clinical breakthroughs, plus grants and goodbyes, 2019 was brimming with memorable moments

Mulling over the Canadian milestones of 2019 is time-consuming. Throughout the year, remarkable occasions abound. There’s Winnipeg-born astronomer James Peebles’ Nobel Prize in Physics. There’s Lilly Singh, a native of Scarborough, Ont., who became the first openly queer non-white man to host her own late-night talk show, A Little Late with Lilly Singh. Proving she can still pen a story readers will savour, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments sold more print copies in its first week of release than any other Canadian novel and earned her a second Booker Prize. A trio of researchers, including Canadians Yoshua Bengio and Geoffrey Hinton, received the Turing Award—the world’s top computer science accolade—for their work on deep learning.

In the athletics arena, Canada enjoyed a pair of sporting successes no fan will soon forget. The Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship in thrilling fashion, upsetting the Golden State Warriors to become the first Canadian team to snag the honour, and Bianca Andreescu defeated tennis titan Serena Williams to reign supreme at the U.S. Open, becoming the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Here at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI), the breakthroughs and landmarks were many. We invite you to hit pause on contemplating your own year or mapping out your 2020 plans, and to look back on 10 of SRI’s notable 2019 moments.

Funding successes

In the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Fall 2018 Project Grant competition, SRI reeled in $12.8 million for a success rate of 23%, comfortably above the national average of 16%. Dr. Stephen Fremes, a scientist in the Schulich Heart Research Program, secured the largest grant among SRI’s crop, as he co-headed a proposal that was awarded more than $5 million to lead a randomized controlled trial comparing two methods of coronary artery bypass surgery. In the Spring 2019 competition, $2.9 million was secured by eight teams involving SRI scientists, including two led by Dr. Julie Hallet, an associate scientist in the Odette Cancer Research Program. Again, SRI’s success rate was above the national average.

Dr. Alain Dabdoub, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, received a Seed Fund of $75,000 in May from the University of Toronto’s Medicine by Design program. He is working to help understand the basis of hearing loss.

In June, six SRI scientists working in the fields of cancer prevention, screening and care received support from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research-Cancer Care Ontario Health Services Research Network. Included here were Drs. Rena Buckstein, Kelvin Chan, Natalie Coburn, Julie Hallet, Alexander Louie and Lee Mozessohn.

In the same month, Dr. Marc Jeschke, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, was awarded $450,000 in the form of a Disease Team grant from the Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine. The fund will support a clinical trial evaluating a novel method of repairing skin for people with severe burns and complex wounds.

Later in the summer, a research team co-led by Dr. Helen MacKay, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, secured a fund worth $1 million from Exactis Innovation for a multicentre clinical trial to personalize treatment for women with ovarian and breast cancers.

Focused ultrasound strides

Building on the success of their Phase 1 trial, which was the first in the world to show focused ultrasound can safely open the blood-brain barrier in people with Alzheimer’s disease, a research team led by Drs. Sandra Black, Kullervo Hynynen and Nir Lipsman launched a Phase 2 trial. This second phase includes more patients and aims to verify the safety and efficacy of the treatment, as well as open the barrier in multiple spots.

Changing gears, Black, Hynynen and Lipsman joined forces with Drs. Agessandro Abrahao, Isabelle Aubert, Clement Hamani, Chinthaka Heyn and Lorne Zinman to show, for the first time, it is feasible and safe to open the blood-brain barrier using focused ultrasound in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The Phase 1 trial also proved the barrier only temporarily remains open, meaning it returns to its protective state after the procedure.

Both firsts could eventually lead to approved therapies for the respective diseases.

An explanation for cancer treatment resistance?

The lab of Dr. David Andrews, a senior scientist in and the director of Biological Sciences, discovered that Bim, a protein essential to programmed cell death, binds to anti-cell-death proteins at two sites. Previously, it was thought to bind at only one site. This finding, published in eLife, could be one reason certain drugs meant to encourage programmed cell death, and thus fight cancer, fail.

Continued and enhanced focus on EDI

Several steps forward were taken this year nationally in the arena of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), and this progress was mirrored at SRI. Dr. JoAnne McLaurin, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences; Dr. Meaghan O’Reilly, a scientist in Physical Sciences; and Dr. Bojana Stefanovic, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, were recognized with Canada Research Chairs in June. McLaurin received a Tier 1 Chair in Alzheimer Disease Therapeutics, O’Reilly a Tier 2 Chair in Biomedical Ultrasound and Stefanovic a Tier 1 Chair in Functional Neuroimaging. These are Canada’s highest research honours.

Dr. Jill Tinmouth, a scientist in the Odette Cancer Research Program, was part of a team that secured a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Fall 2018 Project Grant. The five-year fund, worth $1.5 million, will be used to improve Indigenous peoples’ cancer screening experience in Ontario with an eye to increasing screening participation in these communities.

In celebration of Pride, members of the LGBTQ community at SRI shared their thoughts on being a minority group in science. They spoke about the importance of being one’s full self in the workplace and why visibility matters, among other topics.

Watch out for SRI’s updated EDI action plan, soon to be published on the website.

Multimillion-dollar fund for image-guided therapy awarded to SRI

The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, announced on May 21 a federal investment to launch the Industry Consortium for Image-Guided Therapy at SRI. The $49 million grant will couple artificial intelligence with health technologies in projects across North America. Following the announcement, Bains was taken on a tour of SRI’s device development lab.

Outreach and education aplenty

In March, SRI opened its doors to two dozen aspiring biomedical engineers from École Polytechnique de Montréal. They visited facilities that are unique in Canada, learning about opportunities in research. A couple of months later, 45 high school students were welcomed as an extension of their participation in the 2018 Ontario/Gairdner Foundation International Symposium on focused ultrasound. They heard about research careers from a variety scientists as they toured five labs, and listened to trainees discuss their PhD journeys and future plans.

At the annual 407 ETR Summer Student Poster Competition in August, 82 undergraduate students presented their research and vied for top honours. By end of day, 12 victors were announced, each receiving a cash award. This year’s group of competitors was the largest to date.

On the road to commercializing revolutionary technology

With U of T, SRI and other partners co-founded Notch Therapeutics. It emerged from the science of Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences at SRI, and Dr. Peter Zandstra, now a professor at the University of British Columbia. Allogene Therapeutics, a leading biotech company in the space, followed on by announcing a collaboration to further the technology. The company engineers T cells on an industrial scale with the goal of expanding treatment options and delivering cost-effective immunotherapies to patients.

T cell research shines

Not only did Zúñiga-Pflücker find success in the world of startups, he spearheaded a couple of discoveries. First, his team disproved the long-held belief that T cell development starts in the thymus by showing, instead, that it launches in the bone marrow via Notch signaling. Published in Nature Immunology, the finding overturns existing knowledge of T cell development and could result in better therapies for diseases involving the immune system.

In Blood Advances, he outlined another discovery. His lab was part of a team that found early, or progenitor (pro), T cells, made from stem cells, can mature into functional T cells in mice. There’s potential to pair these pro T cells with bone marrow transplantation to treat immune-compromised people, like leukemia patients. The aim is to launch a clinical trial in one year.

New vice-president, research and innovation announced

After joining SRI in 2006, Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, a senior scientist in and director of Physical Sciences, will take the reins on Jan. 6, 2020 as the new vice-president, research and innovation. No stranger to innovation, Hynynen is often referred to as a pioneer of focused ultrasound. His extensive list of accomplishments at SRI includes leading world-first clinical trials on the use of focused ultrasound to treat brain diseases and securing $160 million worth of support to establish the Centre for Research in Image-Guided Therapeutics.

Michael Julius bids farewell to SRI

It was 2000 when Dr. Michael Julius stepped into leadership as the vice-president, research, Sunnybrook and SRI. Nearly two decades later, he’s stepping away. Under his unflinching focus and unmatched commitment, SRI has blossomed. Total funding when he started was about $40 million; it has exceeded $90 million since 2009–2010, and was $109 million in 2018–2019. He has grown the number of staff from 320 in 2001 to 1,309 in 2019. He has guided SRI to great heights, and on December 2, his legacy was celebrated at an event attended by past and present colleagues; many special guests, including Deborah Gordon, president and CEO of Research Canada; and even his goddaughter, among others.