Making a global impact: Four U of T projects receive Connaught Global Challenge Award

David McMillen
Thursday, May 16, 2019 - 1:23pm
Perry King

Four projects at the University of Toronto – in areas that range from seniors’ vaccinations and mitochondrial health to synthetic biology and research translation – will receive a total of $1 million through the impact-focused Connaught Global Challenge Award.

The award, funded by the U of T Connaught Fund, aims to heighten the university’s impact by advancing knowledge and finding solutions to problems around the world. Founded in 1972 when U of T sold the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories, the Connaught Fund is the largest internal university research-funding program in Canada and supports the university’s top researchers at every career stage.

The teams will use the award money to get their projects off the ground, access external funding and further develop solutions to global challenges and create new research-oriented academic programs.

“The University of Toronto, through the Connaught Global Challenge Award, wants to encourage and grow projects that have potential to bring positive global change,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation. “The winners named this year reflect U of T’s broad leadership and expertise in multiple disciplines. Their projects could lead to solutions for some of world’s most challenging and complicated problems.

“U of T congratulates these four research teams on the thoughtful and creative approaches described in their applications.”

In keeping with U of T’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion, review panel members completed an unconscious bias online module and accessed equity resources from the Division of the Vice-President Research and Innovation in the course of determining the winning projects, including aggregated equity data on the applicant pool to ensure diversity.

Here are the four projects being funded:

David McMillen, an associate professor in the department of chemical and physical sciences at U of T Mississauga, will receive $245,400 to develop innovative synthetic biology solutions to critical health problems in developing countries like the Philippines and India.

Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary research area that seeks to redesign cells so they behave differently – “an engineering effort inside cells,” said McMillen.

For example, scientists could re-program cells so they could better detect and defend against diseases.

The Connaught funding will be used to help formulate policy. In the short term, McMillen and his team will encourage involvement from academic and non-academic global stakeholders that can measure the outcomes and impact of synthetic biology interventions in developing regions.

“[The award will] fund a series of working groups and workshops – we’re going to have a summer institute where we invite people in to get some hands-on experience in synthetic biology, but also hands-on experience with public policy,” said McMillen, who is working with U of T’s Impact Centreaccelerator, the Centre for Global Engineering and the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

The proposed initiative will bring together physical and social scientists, engineers and representatives from industry, government and end-user organizations to move together from brainstorming urgent and realistic targets to identifying creative solutions.

“I see it as part of a larger effort to try to engage people at the University of Toronto and elsewhere to understand how to deploy [our science] in the Global South.”

Ana Cristina AndreazzaAna Cristina Andreazza, an associate professor in the department of pharmacology and toxicology, is receiving $244,100 to enhance mitoNET, a network of academic and non-academic experts who focus on mitochondrial research – specifically, the links between mitochondria in cells and diseases like cancer and heart disease.

The network spans several fields, including science and medicine, ethics, public health, and data management.

“We had a simple goal: bring the community together,” said Andreazza, who co-founded mitoNET with the MitoCanada Foundation in 2017.

“What we were all interested in was trying to understand how mitochondria played a role in many different diseases.”

MitoNET’s 10-year vision is to provide clinicians with the tools and knowledge to assess mitochondrial health as part of routine care. With support from the award, Andreazza’s group will provide channels for global researchers to collaborate, pool resources and minimize the duplication of research efforts in a supportive environment. MitoNET will also provide a platform to turn its innovations into public policy and public health applications.

MitoNET will actively seek patient feedback as part of its work, said Andreazza, because patients deserve a say in their care. The group’s focus continues to be to “improve the lives of those carrying mitochondrial dysfunction,” she said.

“If you lose focus on that, we can’t move forward.”

Andreazza, in collaboration with the MitoCanada Foundation, is currently planning a mitochondrial disease conference this November in Toronto to potentially accelerate collaborations with other groups, including global cancer and heart disease foundations.

Adalsteinn BrownA group lead by Adalsteinn Brown, dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, will receive $248,789 to help build a new interdisciplinary collaboration at U of T focused on the immunization of seniors, particularly pneumococcal vaccinations.

Healthy aging is an important topic for the Canadian economy and policy-makers – particularly in Ontario, where seniors are becoming an ever-increasing proportion of the population, said Natasha Crowcroft, a professor at Dalla Lana and the Faculty of Medicine’s department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology.

“Older people are a growing demographic,” said Crowcroft, who is also chief science officer at Public Health Ontario and an adjunct scientist at ICES. “We know vaccines can work really well, and we know that we’re not reaching enough older people with vaccines.”

The Connaught Award will also help fund a new Centre for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases, led by Crowcroft. The centre is being supported by vaccine-producer Sanofi-Pasteur – the successor to Connaught Medical Research Laboratories, which was originally established in 1914 to produce diphtheria antitoxin.

The centre will be interdisciplinary, allowing different groups – including health professionals, policy-makers, data scientists, machine learning experts, pharmacists, patients and students – to share space as they seek to better understand and address the growth of preventable illnesses.

 “We try to really to touch a lot of different areas and work with a lot of different partners and disciplines,” said Crowcroft.

“It’s trying to help drive forward the idea of the centre by creating networks, forging links and alliances, but  [also] oiling the wheels with funding, which makes a huge difference.”

Avrum GotliebProfessor Avrum Gotlieb, in the department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology, will receive $247,000 to build capacity for translational research that enables scientific discoveries to move out of the lab and into the real world, where they can improve patient care, health-care policy and products like pharmaceuticals.

Gotlieb, whose academic research is focused on cardiovascular disease, is also a senior program adviser with U of T’s Translational Research Program, which seeks to move knowledge “towards mechanisms, techniques and approaches that support the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease.”

The Connaught award will support the development and implementation of a Translational Hub – a community dedicated to educational programs, research collaborations and community-building that’s focused on knowledge mobilization and commercialization to improve impact on health and patient outcomes.

“Creation of a community to provide support and infrastructure at the U of T will expedite the growth and development of our local translational infrastructure and its global reach,” said Gotlieb in his project description.

Read about the 2018 winners of the Connaught Global Challenge Award