Neurotechnological innovation and organ-on-a-chip engineering centres receive more than $10 million in new funding

Mice and rats have long been unwitting test subjects for drug companies—even though their furry little bodies don’t mimic human physiology very well.

But research by Professor Milica Radisic has helped open the door to a much better option: testing pharmaceuticals on human organ tissue grown in three dimensions in the lab.

That’s what Radisic and her co-researchers are hoping to accomplish with the creation of the Ontario-Quebec centre for organ-on-a-chip engineering.

She is among two dozen researchers from U of T, including faculty based at partner hospitals, awarded a total of $106.6 million by CFI to further research in everything from smart transportation to the evolution of distant galaxies.

“Placing cells in these controlled, micro-fabricated 3D environments allows you to precisely control the mechanical properties and matrix around the cells, as well as flow input and output,” said Radisic, who is the Canada Research Chair in Functional Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering. “It enables researchers to go to the next level and capture specific cell functions.

“We hope this will enable us to discover better drugs.”

The centre—a partnership between U of T, McMaster University, Ryerson University, McGill University and the University Health Network—will receive nearly $4.2 million from CFI to further develop and scale up production of tissue models for the heart, kidney, liver, placenta and tumours, as well as develop tools to analyze their performance.

Radisic’s lab has made particular progress growing heart cells on a biodegradable scaffold built from thin layers of polymer that includes an intricate channel pattern to replicate blood vessels. She credits the success of the technology, called AngioChip, for helping the organ-on-a-chip project secure the necessary funding for its launch.

“Our goal is to be a truly national centre for organ-on-a-chip engineering that will benefit researchers across Canada,” Radisic said.

Another project, led by Professor Milos Popovic, will receive $6.5 million to establish the CenteR for Advancing Neurotechnological Innovation to Application (CRANIA).

Advanced neuromodulation therapies work by stimulating specific brain regions involved in neurological diseases and conditions, such as epilepsy, depression, Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease and spinal cord injury.

CRANIA’s researchers—including those at the University of Toronto and at the University Health Network—will use the cutting-edge equipment to identify brain regions involved in disease, and develop and customize new ‘smart’ implantable devices to target these specific regions for therapeutic purposes.

“This funding will bolster important research that not only creates knowledge, but contributes to important advances in fields that range from health care to smart, sustainable cities—helping drive innovation in Canada’s economy in the process,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation.

In all, CFI awarded more than $554 million to 117 new projects at universities, colleges and research hospitals across the country. It passed a significant milestone in the process, having funded more than 10,000 projects since it began in 1997.

“The Innovation Fund encourages institutions and researchers to think big and strive to be global leaders by conducting world-class research,” said Kirsty Duncan, the federal minister of science, in a statement.

“This funding pushes researchers to aim higher in their pursuits by collaborating across disciplines, institutions and sectors.”

With files from University Health Network Research News