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Microbes, Nanomaterials and Gas Turbines

Most people choose not to think about the trillions of microorganisms – bacteria, viruses and fungi – that live on and inside our bodies. But these microbes have a tremendous impact on many aspects of health and disease.

by Paul Fraumeni - University of Toronto News Office
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Most people choose not to think about the trillions of microorganisms – bacteria, viruses and fungi – that live on and inside our bodies. But these microbes have a tremendous impact on many aspects of health and disease.

They’re also at the heart of Dana Philpott's research and a new $6-million Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI)-funded research project: the University of Toronto’s Host-Microbiome Research Network.

Philpott’s project is one of nine research initiatives at U of T that have been awarded a total of $21 million from the CFI, an independent corporation created by the Government of Canada to fund research infrastructure. The combined U of T and partner hospitals awards total $33.4 million.

An associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Immunology, Philpott said these microbes may cause inflammation inside the body, which many scientists believe is the root cause of many chronic diseases, including diabetes and obesity.

U of T
Associate Professor Dana Philpott (second from right) and her research team. Image courtesy of the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine

“Right now, we have no idea what a normal microbial profile looks like, but we do know that some bacteria can cause inflammation,” said Philpott.

She will lead U of T's Host-Microbiome Research Network with Ken Croitoru, professor in the Department of Medicine and Division of Gastroenterology at Mount Sinai Hospital. The centre is to be located in both U of T and Mount Sinai Hospital laboratories.

“If we can get rid of the inflammation-causing bacteria using targeted antibiotics or probiotic cocktails, we might be able to treat or even prevent disease," Philpott said. "This could represent a new aspect of personalized medicine.

"We can’t see them, but in the future these microbes will play a pivotal role in how diseases like cancer and heart disease are detected, treated and one day, prevented.”

As part of the new initiative, Mount Sinai Hospital will open Canada’s largest clinical research unit dedicated to investigating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and helping to find better treatments to improve the lives of some 200,000 Canadians.

The clinical research unit will allow Croitoru and his colleagues to integrate IBD research and clinical care under one roof, so that when patients visit the hospital for care, research studies will allow for patients to undergo state-of-the-art MRI imaging of the intestine to be correlated with the degree of inflammation, the nature of the gut microbiome and changes in the immune response. The goal is to create a personalized profile of a patient’s risk of developing the disease and to determine their specific triggers based on their immune responses and the profile of the microbes in their bodies.

The awards are part of a total of $166 million awarded by the CFI to institutions across Canada. This round of investment is from the CFI’s Leading Edge Fund and New Initiatives Fund and was announced Jan. 15.

“Research and innovation is a forceful driver of growth in our communities,” said Gilles G. Patry, president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. “Today’s funding will allow a talented group of researchers and students to create the solutions, products and ideas Canada needs to prosper.”

The other U of T winners are:

Leading Edge Fund

  • Centre for Biofouling Control, Gilbert Walker, Chemistry, $594,445
  • Centre for Chemical Analysis, Andrei Yudin, Chemistry, $656,767
  • Development of Open-Access Research Tools for Epigenetics, Cheryl Arrowsmith, Medical Biophysics, $2,402,926
  • Nanomaterials for Energy, Ted Sargent, Edward S. Rogers Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, $3,412,588
  • Ontario Centre for Characterization of Advanced Materials, Charles Mims, Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, $4,601,343
  • Technology and Instrument Developments for Space and Ground-based Astronomy, Dae-Sik Moon, Astronomy & Astrophysics, $400,000

New Initiatives Fund

  • Centre for the Evaluation of Technological Innovation (CETI), Murray Krahn, Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, $1,199,915
  • High-Pressure Blow-Down Facility for Gas Turbine Combustion Research, Omer Gulder, University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, $2,040,000

CFI also awarded $12.4 million to projects at four of U of T’s partner hospitals – the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the Hospital for Sick Children, Sunnybrook Research Institute and the University Health Network.

“Congratulations to each of the faculty members being supported through this announcement,” said Professor Paul Young, U of T’s vice president (research and innovation). “They will be pursuing basic and applied research in areas that will improve our lives and contribute to Canadian prosperity. We are deeply grateful to the CFI for this investment.”

Young noted that the combined U of T and partner hospitals awards represent 20% of the national total CFI announced.

"This is a fabulous success rate and points clearly to the innovation and impact in all of these research projects,” said Young.