Night has fallen on St. George campus. The exodus from the last Convocation Hall lecture swamps the darkened street with students. As they pace past College Street’s historic buildings, they encounter one striking anomaly: the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research. The Donnelly CCBR is a glowing vision in glass and steel, a Rubik’s Cube for the gods. It’s hard to believe this towering structure was once a parking lot. But what goes on inside?
As one of Canada’s leading genomics research centres, the DCCBR brings together investigators from a wide range of disciplines. It was established to foster collaborations among the Faculties of Medicine, Pharmacy, Applied Science & Engineering and Arts & Science at U of T. From its vantage point overlooking College Street, the DCCBR is a scientific and architectural landmark, and according to Director of Communications, Cynthia Colby, “The open concept was literally designed so that the best and brightest will bump into each other in the hallways.”
The centre is the brainchild of professors Cecil Yip and James Freisen from the Faculty of Medicine, and the DCCBR’s first director Brenda Andrews, a leading yeast genomics researcher. Completed in November 2005 at the cost of $105 million dollars, the center has received architectural acclaim from the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 2008 NOW Magazine named it the “best new building to render science visible to the world”—and for good reason. Always abuzz with students and staff, this is the kind of place where even the bathrooms are inspiring.
So far, the DCCBR has attracted 40 world-renowned Principal Investigators and approximately 600 students, postdoctoral fellows, and research technicians. With a broad mandate, the centre focuses its research on three platforms: integrative biology, bioengineering and functional imaging, and models of disease.
“It’s amazing to think that a single-celled organism could unlock the secrets to the complexity of human health and disease,” says Colby. “If we can understand how viruses, bacteria, and our bodies are programmed and how they can be re-programmed, the treatment of disease will shift from emergency interventions to deliberate and personalized prevention. Our impact on the average person is largely indirect; however, the research is tightly linked to science education, and it is medically relevant with the potential to discover therapeutic targets and drug leads.”
The DCCBR collaborates with its neighbouring teaching hospitals, government, and industry, and has joined forces with MaRS and the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine. It also plans to launch public outreach programs, giving high school students and interested members of the public the chance to witness the cutting edge biomedical research done at the centre.
With such a stimulating approach to scientific research, it seems that the key to the DCCBR is its interdisciplinary focus.
“Consider that the cost of sequencing a single genome has collapsed from $150,000,000 to $1,000,” says Colby. “To accelerate scientific progress, the DCCBR fosters the development of bold, cutting-edge research by uniting diverse areas of expertise. Combining multiple disciplines (cell biology, genetics, biochemistry, bioinformatics and engineering) expands research speed, capacity and sparks technological innovation.”
One of the goals of the DCCBR is to shape and define the “New Biology,” a science that thrives on multi-discipline collaboration in a communal setting. With its exciting new attitude toward research and interdisciplinary interaction, it seems they are well on the way to heralding a new age of scientific development. Will kids of the future stop dreaming of being astronauts, in favour of careers in biomolecular research? Only time will tell.