University of Toronto’s Christine Allen on investing in bio-manufacturing, life sciences research

(Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

With an eye to supporting Canada’s pandemic recovery and preparing for future threats to public health, the federal government recently announced $2.2 billion in investment over seven years in the life sciences.

“These growing fields are not only critical to our safety, but are fast-growing sectors that support well-paying jobs and attract investment,” the budget document reads.

The investments are welcomed by the University of Toronto and will help the university to modernize critical lab infrastructure, support cutting-edge research and industry partnerships, and train the next generation of researchers, says Christine Allen, associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives and professor in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy.

She added that, with the new investments in these key areas, there is a need to work together across sectors to develop a pan-Canadian bio-innovation and life sciences strategy.

U of T News recently spoke with Allen about what the federal budget means for U of T and life sciences research in Canada.

Why is it necessary to invest in life sciences and bio-manufacturing?

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of investing in research and innovation in our society. Within less than a year from the first case of COVID-19, two vaccines were developed by researchers around the world and later approved by Canadian regulators. That was only possible because the vaccines were not developed from a standing start. They were based on research that had been underway for decades.

Investment in bio-manufacturing – the manufacturing of biological therapies such as vaccines – is critical to ensure the health security of the population, support the development of therapies including biologics and cell-based therapies, and prevent locally developed biomedical technologies from moving outside of Canada for manufacturing and commercialization.

But bio-manufacturing capacity can’t thrive on its own. A strong bio-manufacturing industry requires upstream investments in areas such as training a capable workforce. Where can this be done better than in academia?

Entrepreneurship is another key element to ensure bio-medical discoveries are translated into effective treatments by the creation of startups and attracting large companies and venture capital. At U of T, we have numerous industry partnerships that provide students and post-doctoral researchers with opportunities to commercialize discoveries and develop skills in demand by industry.

It’s important to invest in a pipeline of innovative research, so you have something to bio-manufacture. These breakthroughs take place in academic labs.

We need each of these elements for a successful national bio-manufacturing strategy that fosters a vibrant local industry.

How will some of the measures announced in the federal budget affect U of T?

We advocated very strongly for investments in the life sciences, including funding for discovery research and infrastructure. The government came through with $250 million toward a new biomedical research program to be delivered by our federal granting agencies, which we expect will provide a big boost to our researchers.

On the infrastructure side, we were quite hopeful to see an investment in biomedical lab infrastructure. There are specified containment levels required to work with certain viruses or infectious agents. For SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus responsible for COVID-19, you need to work in a containment level three (CL3) lab.

Our CL3 lab at U of T is the go-to facility in the GTA, used by leading researchers, hospital partners, government agencies and industry throughout the pandemic. It is the only operational CL3 facility that researchers at U of T and the Toronto Academic Health Science Network (TAHSN) can use, so it’s a very important facility. However, it’s more than 20 years old and in need of renewal.

The facility was underutilized and struggled to remain operational prior to the pandemic because the funding for that type of research dried up after the SARS outbreak. But since COVID-19, research in this area has become very popular – and urgent – all over again.

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