From Lab Bench to Bedside in Record Time: How Industry, Academia, Healthcare Providers fuel Toronto’s R&D

28 Apr

By Dianne Carmichael, Guest Writer; Managing Director, Health Innovation & Venture Services, MaRS Discovery District

Blog Post Series #3 of 3

Dianne-CarmichaelIndustry–academic collaborations are the engine that powers successful enterprises in health research and development today. Nowhere is this connection more powerful than in the city of Toronto, where academic leaders such as the University of Toronto are locating their investigative teams within the MaRS Discovery District, supporting consortium able to pool research and commercialize health innovations.

Investors attending the RESI on MaRS conference will get a chance to check out some of the cutting-edge science in Canada, and discover a northern health ecosystem that boasts a perfect match between intellectual property and world-class hospitals that offer clinical infrastructure and access to patients — factors that are critical for young companies building new products and testing business models.

Toronto offers a unique health cluster that sets it apart from other health hubs such as Silicon Valley and Boston. Not only does this region have clusters of entrepreneurs that work in both the life sciences and digital sectors, but capital in Canada stretches much further for investors. The low Canadian dollar is one factor. Another is the geographic layout of Toronto and the close proximity of several hospitals, clinics (offering access to patients), a world-class university and commercialization hub that reduces investor risk by providing a steady volume of startups with access to a robust market — $50 billion annually is spent on healthcare in the region. MaRS, the innovation hub, also pilots a unique program called EXCITE which specifically fosters the early adoption of technology by institutions, speeding up local procurement.

Finally, Toronto is working on the frontier of new science. The biggest verticals in the region are cancer and brain research, regenerative medicine and stem cell genomics, the latter being part of an industry expected to grow to US$1.5 trillion globally, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. If the future of medicine is in gene manipulation and tissue re-engineering, then Toronto is at the epicentre of a new economic engine. The health sector here is not just drugs and devices; It’s all modalities of technology related to disease management.

Outstanding examples of well-developed research partnerships in these fields include the Structural Genomics Consortium, the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, the new JLabs@Toronto, and the long-lasting partnership between MaRS and the University of Toronto.

At the world-leading Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), U of T scientists are working in partnership with Bayer, Pfizer, Merck, Novartis, Janssen, Boehringer Ingelheim, Takeda and Abbvie, as well as researchers from five other universities worldwide to determine the 3D structures of human proteins of therapeutic relevance to diseases such as cancer and metabolic disorders. Located within the MaRS Centre in Toronto since 2008, the SGC has already solved over 1500 protein structures and has generated 19 chemical probes for epigenetic proteins.

Also moving into the MaRS Centre is the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM). The CCRM recently received a $20-million grant from the Canadian federal government, announced at MaRS by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to establish a Centre for Advanced Therapeutic Cell Technologies. GE Healthcare is also committing $20 million to the new centre. Kieran Murphy, CEO of GE Healthcare’s life sciences business, said in a news release that “regenerative medicine will transform health care globally.” The global market for cell-based therapies targeting cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, musculoskeletal disorder and autoimmune diseases is expected to grow past US$20 billion by 2025.

Another new frontier of science converging at MaRS is the Parametric Human Project, headed by Autodesk (also a tenant at the MaRS Centre) and U of T, in a consortium of 28 institutions worldwide, working to produce a fully functional digital human model, morphologically and physiologically complete. The resulting Parametric Human promises to revolutionize clinical trials, removing human subjects from the equation and revamping commercialization itself along the way.

High-level partnerships leading to innovation is a tradition at U of T, which has nine fully-affiliated research and teaching hospitals. Most of them are either adjacent to the MaRS Centre or within a short walk from it. The world-renowned Hospital for Sick Children and University Health Network actually maintain their basic research facilities within the MaRS Centre, at the 15-storey Toronto Medical Discovery Tower.

This hot bed of innovation in and around the MaRS Centre attracts talent, naturally, but also investors and other partners. The soon-to-open JLabs@Toronto, of Johnson & Johnson Innovation is not just parachuting into the scene at Toronto’s Discovery District, known in previous decades as “hospital row.”

Other U of T research labs have also moved in to the MaRS Centre, and last year U of T invested $31 million to become a 20-per-cent equity owner in the 20-story West Tower at the 1.5-million square foot MaRS Centre, in addition to renting another five floors in the tower.

“It’s a key vote of confidence,” said Scott Mabury, U of T’s vice-president, university operations. “We are going to be here for decades, even centuries.”

The U of T expansion into the MaRS Centre’s West Tower, will also provide a new home for the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research, itself a partnership of U of T’s with the University Health Network and the Hospital for Sick Children, focusing on new models for repairing damaged hearts. The West Tower is located next door to the UHN’s world-class Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, which stands between the MaRS Centre and the Toronto General Hospital.

For those unfamiliar with Toronto’s hub of health innovation and care, within a five-minute walk above ground or in a network of underground tunnels, the MaRS Centre connects with: Toronto General Hospital, Hospital for Sick Kids, Mount Sinai Hospital, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Women’s College Hospital, the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, the U of T’s Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Bimolecular Research and the university’s faculties of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and nursing. This environment, not just in theory, but in practice, means health innovation in downtown Toronto flows naturally from lab bench to bedside.

Perhaps one of the most fruitful sides of the synergy between U of T and MaRS is indeed the facilitated path to take innovation from the lab bench to the bedside. U of T’s nine on-campus accelerators for startups galvanize the university’s innovation through the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (BBCIE), located across the street from the MaRS Centre. The BBCIE, on its turn, is a partner of MaRS Innovation, which leads the commercialization efforts for the innovation pipeline coming out of 15 research institutions in Ontario, funnelling a $1.5-billion portfolio in annual R&D.

The longstanding, close partnership between MaRS and U of T opens up opportunities for even further fostering activity, such as the opening of JLabs@Toronto in May.

“Toronto is home to a vibrant and prolific healthcare and life sciences community led by academic hospitals, world-class research institutions, top scientists, and a strong startup ecosystem. For these reasons, Toronto is a natural choice for our first international expansion of JLABS,” said Melinda Richter, head of JLABS, at the announcement of the project spearheaded by the Ontario government, MaRS, U of T and Johnson & Johnson Innovation.

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