Major endowment triggers massive increase in Univ of Toronto funding for biomedical and genetic research

Guest Contributor
June 30, 2000

Canada's largest concentration of academic health research is about to get a lot bigger with the creation of a virtual centre for biomedical and genetic research. The Univ of Toronto recently unveiled the first details of the $150-million initiative under the banner of the R Samuel McLaughlin Centre, capping three years of discussions to determine how to best wind up the R Samuel McLaughlin Foundation.

Five large research programs form the core of the new initiative, which is designed to advance the basic biomedical science of genetics and molecular biology, attract and retain outstanding research personnel, and provide a training ground for future clinicians and scientists. The five research programs are well positioned to conduct pioneering work in the post-genomics era, which burst into the spotlight earlier this week with the announcement of the completion of a "rough draft" of the human genome. The programs will focus on: multiple gene defects, population genetics and environmental influences, gene therapies, molecular pharmacology and biomaterials and tissue engineering.

The principal investigators for each research area have already been chosen and activity is expected to ramp up quickly once the McLaughlin Foundation's $50-million endowment is delivered next year. That will trigger a $50-million investment by the provincial Ontario Innovation Trust (OIT), as well as $10 million from each of the five collaborating institutions, for a total of $150 million. An international search for a director to head up the new centre will be initiated in the near future.

The Univ of Toronto and its four affiliated teaching hospitals - The Hospital for Sick Children, Mount Sinai Hospital, Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre, and the University Health Network) - will collaborate on all facets of the centre's work.

"The most exciting part of this is the revolutionary partnership between the U of T and its four teaching hospitals. Each program is a full integrative collaboration, as is the whole notion of the McLaughlin Centre," says Dr Heather Monroe-Bloom, U of T's VP research and international relations. "This is an enormous increase in research funding which will have a transformative impact."

The opportunity to build on the U of T's formidable health research base arose when the McLaughlin Foundation began taking steps to wind up its activities after 50 years in operation. The decision to close the foundation is in accordance with its founder - Samuel McLaughlin, an early Canadian car maker who created the institution to advance medical research and training. The foundation issued a Canada-wide request for proposals which was won by the U of T, sparking discussions with the province and within the university on how to use the funds for maximum leverage.

Proceeds earned from the McLaughlin endowment combined with the $50 million from the U of T institutions will generate an annual operating budget of approximately $5 million, which will be devoted to underwriting the research and for curriculum development and training, reflecting the knowledge that comes out of the research programs.

To gain access to OIT funding, the U of T proposal had to be broken down into five components since the provincial program limited single contributions to $15 million. The five collaborating research institutes were therefore treated as single projects, with $10 million awarded to each. OIT funds will be used for the research component of the new centre. OIT support will be used to bolster information technology infrastructure, acquire new research equipment and for some building renovations. Contractual details for each project are being finalized.

The arms length OIT was established last year to increase the capabilities of Ontario's universities, colleges, hospitals and other organizations, but to date it has primarily been used as a matching fund for awards made under the Canada Foundation for Innovation. The decision to match the McLaughlin endowment is one of the first instances of the OIT exercising its role independent of CFI awards.

"The U of T deal is very broad in scope," says OIT executive director David Bogart. "Very exciting things could happen if they succeed with even half of what they're proposing. We're investing in the track record of scientists and giving them enabling tools and letting them get on with it."

It's anticipated that the funding will help attract leading-edge researchers to the centre as the global competition for talent heats up in the health field. Biomedical and genetic research are considered hot areas in which the U of T is ideally positioned to exploit. Curriculum development and the training component of the centre will be undertaken by15 scientists, who will also act as supervisors, and mentors for students in the MD/ PhD program. It will be expanded, as will the clinician-scientists training program.

"This is building research infrastructure as there are a number of research awards that interact with this. All the participating investigators hold major awards and the centre builds upon our success with the OIT, the Premier's Research Excellence Awards, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canada Research Chairs Program."


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