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21 Canada Research Chairs appointed at U of T

Federal award recognizes high-impact academic researchers across Canada

21 Canada Research Chairs appointed at U of T

In 2000, the Government of Canada initiated the Canada Research Chairs Program (CRCP) to provide funding and resources to researchers working at Canadian universities.

The funding promotes the work of promising researchers who are considered world leaders in their field. In addition, it attracts international researchers and retains talented home-grown individuals to position Canada as a world leader in research and development.

An appointment to the CRCP signifies and rewards impactful research.

The number of Research Chairs made available to each university is based on the value of federal research funding that a university has received over the past three years prior to the year of allocation. U of T and its partner hospitals currently hold 275 Chairs.

The CRCP appointment is broken down into Tiers 1 and 2, which are differentiated by the length and value of funding.

This year, 21 new and renewed CRCP Chairs were awarded at U of T. Eight researchers received Tier 1 appointments, with Dr. Daniel Durocher of the Faculty of Medicine having his Tier 1 appointment renewed. Among the recipients are researchers studying breast cancer, neural circuit development and function, developmental genetics and disease modeling, and experimental high-energy particle physics.


Below are a series of profiles on the new Tier 1 appointments and their research.

Dr. Rayjean Hung’s research aims to detect cancer in its early stages through examining individuals’ genomic and molecular profiles.

“This Chair award will form an important foundation of my research program in the next 7 years, not only to continue the core of my current research program but it will also help us to embark on novel initiatives that are considered high-risk and high-reward,” wrote Hung in an email to The Varsity.

Dr. Brian Ciruna is a professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics who previously held a Tier 2 Chair. Ciruna’s research includes studying the molecular genetic regulation of embryonic development. Using zebrafish models, his team’s work is directed towards understanding the role that the planar cell polarity signalling pathway — a mechanism responsible for proper tissue development and cell to cell communication — plays in the growth and development of the embryo.

Dr. Alan Davidson is a Chair in researching and developing bacteriophage-based technologies. Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria. In addition to understanding the interactions between bacteriophages and their bacterial hosts, Davidson and his team study the CRISPR-Cas systems, and investigate their inhibitors and their potential in helping understand how bacteria resist bacteriophages.

Dr. Dana Philpott is the Acting Chair in the Department of Immunology. Philpott’s team seeks to investigate the Nod-like receptor family of protein. Of particular interest is the role that these proteins play in autoimmune disease and in the adaptive immunity to bacterial infections.

Dr. Pierre Savard is a particle physicist in the Department of Physics. A Scientific Associate with the European Organization for Nuclear Research, his work focuses on the production and behaviour of the Higgs boson particle.

Dr. Mei Zhen is a neuroscientist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute and is cross-appointed to the Departments of Molecular Genetics, Physiology, and Cell & Systems Biology. Zhen’s research uses the worm C. elegans to reveal deficits underlying human neurological disorders. Her lab works in the field of connectomics — the the study of neural connections known an connectomes — with applications in understanding the development of the human nervous system and its diseases.

Dr. Rama Khokha is a renowned breast cancer researcher at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. With a wide scope in solving biological problems associated with cancer, the research led by her group includes a focus on stem cells, having also setup workable mouse and human cell platforms for cancer research.

Dr. Lisa Strug is focused on developing new methods to analyze multi-omic data that can help in the creation of diagnostic models for diseases, including cystic fibrosis and genetic epilepsies.

“I am inspired by — and committed to — the people involved: The patients and their families who suffer but continue to contribute their time and specimens even when the research may not immediately benefit them; the foundations who tirelessly raise money and support the patients and families they aim to serve; and the students who I train, who are so committed to a career in biomedical research and work tirelessly to push the science forward,” wrote Strug in an email to The Varsity.

“Choose something you love to do and that you believe is important, and then work hard at it,” Strug advises young scientists. “Be resilient in the face of adversity, be determined, have a strong foundation in your discipline and always practice your science with the utmost scientific integrity.”


U of T prof’s startup takes cancer therapy to clinical trials

Pionyr Immunotherapeutics raises $62 million in series B investment round

U of T prof’s startup takes cancer therapy to clinical trials

A biotech startup co-founded by Sachdev Sidhu, a professor in U of T’s Department of Molecular Genetics, has drawn in $62 million USD following a second round of funding, bringing its total investments to $72 million USD.

Pionyr Immunotherapeutics, which is now planning to take its anti-cancer therapy to clinical trials, initially began as a research collaboration between Sidhu and Max Krummel, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. Founded in 2015, the California-based startup combined Sidhu’s expertise in antibody phage-display technology with Krummel’s immune system biology research.

This project is a collaborative effort with Toronto Recombinant Antibody Centre (TRAC), which was founded by Sidhu and Dr. Jason Moffat, who is also a Molecular Genetics professor at U of T. Housed in the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, TRAC researchers are working to harness the therapeutic potential of synthetic antibodies.

Synthetic antibodies can be engineered to target a variety of molecules implicated in disease and they are key for drug development. Pionyr’s anti-cancer therapy, known as Myeloid Tuning, uses the high specificity afforded by synthetic antibodies to bolster the immune system’s defence against cancer by manipulating a tumour’s microenvironment.

The immune system uses T cells to detect foreign molecules to evoke a defensive response. Because tumours are created from existing cells in the body, they evade recognition by T cells, dampen the immune response, and proliferate uncontrollably. The key is to restore the body’s immune capacity to fight cancer — this is the premise of immunotherapy in oncology, better known as immuno-oncology.

“So the idea there is simple: you want to turn on a T cell, you simply find proteins that are inhibiting that T cell,” said Sidhu.

Myeloid Tuning achieves this by “alter the tumour microenvironment to favour immune-activating cells over immune-suppressing cells” and enhances anti-tumour defenses. “T cells are activated not by targeting them but by eliminating the inhibitory cell population,” said Sidhu.

Pionyr’s technology could also complement existing anti-tumour therapies like T cell checkpoint inhibitors. Checkpoints are regulators that mediate communication between T cells and the immune system. They are responsible for fine-tuning the body’s immunity and downregulating it when it detects native cells, which would otherwise lead to an autoimmune response. By incorporating checkpoint inhibitors, therapies can be developed to block a tumour’s ability to evade T cell detection.

Ipilimumab, commercially known as Yervoy, set the precedent by becoming the first United States Food and Drug Administration-approved therapeutic antibody against skin cancers and for ushering in a new wave of immuno-oncology. The drug, co-invented by Krummel, inhibits cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated protein-4, one of many checkpoints found on T cells. Similarly, pembrolizumab, or Keytruda, inhibits the checkpoint called programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1).

“Anti-PD-1 binds the T cell and… activates it that way, and then we add another antibody that eliminates inhibitory myeloid cells, so you get double [the effect],” said Sidhu.

Sidhu says there is a critical question in field: does the rest of the tumour simply not have T cells that can attack them or are there additional yet unidentified breaks? These possibilities are not mutually exclusive and are already being investigated. According to Sidhu, the future of immuno-oncology is already here.

Myeloid Tuning is a very promising method, but it is not the only immuno-oncology treatment in the works. Currently, therapeutic agents being researched involve other immune cells like macrophages and natural killer cells that can be exploited for anti-tumour therapies.

“[There is] very little that is not being explored as far as immune cell activation,” said Sidhu. “It’s exciting in that, while only a subset of cancers responds to immunotherapy, the ones that do respond often respond tremendously.”