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Transforming multidisciplinary research at U of T's CCBR

...from humans to salmon to horses to apples - work.

"Multidisciplinary learning offers an excellent opportunity for students and faculty to move beyond the traditional boundaries of an academic discipline": Glen Jones, OISE/UT

"Over the past number of years, scientists worldwide have been sequencing all the genes in the cells of humans and many other organisms," says Friesen, one of the key U of T players in the creation of the CCBR. "This work has been extremely important and it has opened a floodgate of knowledge that has already led to a number of major discoveries. We know the details of all human genes, but we still don't know how they affect cell growth and disease. It's a case of the more we know, the more we want to know. There's an urgent need now to mine this mountain of new information to get to a higher level of understanding."

To fill this gap, says Friesen, science must understand how the products of genes - proteins - do their work. "The key is to realize that a living system is complex. It is not based on one component. There are many pieces, all interacting and working together. Scientists have not mastered these interactions yet. So that is our goal with the CCBR - to look at living systems at the molecular and cellular levels and to integrate this knowledge. Once we understand these interactions, we can begin to understand the actual origins of disease. For example, how cystic fibrosis or Alzheimer's disease actually start. We only have the most rudimentary understanding of this now. We need to know more."

With this knowledge, adds Professor Cecil Yip, Vice-Dean, Research in U of T's Faculty of Medicine, "we can begin designing a whole new range of drugs, vaccines and innovative therapies to treat disease and, hopefully, to keep people from getting certain diseases in the first place. But there is a tremendous amount of work to do first."

Friesen and Yip believe that the CCBR can meet these challenges. Since the "New Biology" takes a wide, comprehensive view of all the components of living systems, Friesen and Yip feel that the only way to achieve this deeper understanding is to conduct research from a variety of angles.

That is the essence of the CCBR. "You hear the term 'multidisciplinary' around universities a lot," says Yip. "But the CCBR will take teaching and training to a new level through its innovative approach to research."

In that sense, approximately 70 investigators, with their research teams and graduate students, will work side-by-side in the CCBR and in close proximity to other research centres. They will come from a multitude of disciplines - engineering, biomedical sciences, pharmaceutical sciences, chemistry, physics, computer sciences, botany, zoology, electrical and chemical engineering and others - and will be melded into a kind of scientific stew where, as Yip says, "we will have new and unusual combinations of science colliding. Our goal is to have all these different thinkers literally bumping into each other and exchanging ideas."

To speed up this "collision," two approaches will be used. First, the scientific home will be constructed just behind the current Medical Sciences Building on U of T's downtown St. George campus. Inside, there will be as few physical barriers between scientists as possible. "Scientists and their research teams are now located across U of T's three campuses and in the hospital research institutes," says Friesen. "This scientific breadth is one of the strengths of the U of T research community. Still, to develop the knowledge we are pursuing at the CCBR, we need to get researchers from diverse disciplines physically next to each other, in an environment where, for example, a computer scientist, a molecular biologist, and a chemical engineer can exchange and debate ideas on the spur of the moment. The design of the CCBR will not only put teams of investigators in the same building, but the labs will be as 'open concept' as possible so there will be every incentive for interaction and cross- fertilization of ideas, knowledge and methods."

The second approach is a programmatic structure. Research teams will pursue their investigations along five programs, which represent new areas of research into cellular and biomolecular science. The programs are: Proteomics and Bioinformatics, Protein Structure, Animal Models and Mechanisms of Human Disease, Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering, and Cellular and Molecular Functional Imaging (see sidebar).

The CCBR is part of a growing number of new university-based research centres studying complex living systems. In the past 18 months, Stanford, Harvard, Caltech, Chicago and Johns Hopkins all have announced similar initiatives using a multidisciplinary approach. The leaders of these centres share the belief that research programs that integrate specialists from a variety of backgrounds are the only way to understand how all the parts of a living system intermingle. "The convergence of chemistry, physics, biology and engineering is upon us," said Lucy Shapiro, a developmental biologist at Stanford, in Science magazine's April 1999 issue.

Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., also believes that a blurring of the lines between many disciplines is essential in the New Biology. "New technologies and new knowledge have recently revolutionized our abilities to understand normal biological functions and disease. A broad array of scientific disciplines made this revolution, and that consortium is now required more than ever if we are to follow the new paths."

The CCBR - which is being funded through the federal government's Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Province of Ontario, U of T and a variety of other public and private sources - will be the first of its kind in Canada and will serve as a hub of a national and international effort in this area of research. "The CCBR will be a centre of expertise and innovation for Canada and it will be linked to international research networks," says Yip. In addition to the involvement of scientists based at several teaching hospitals affiliated with the University of Toronto, Yip anticipates that investigation could be linked to research being done at the University of British Columbia, McGill University, the B.C. Cancer Institute, the Montreal Biotechnology Institute, the Saskatoon Plant Biotechnology Institute, Halifax's Marine Biology Institute and many of the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence across the country. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in Canada and around the world will also be involved.

"The greater the diversity of people and organizations involved with what is being done at the CCBR, the greater the chances for us to develop research that can truly break new ground," says Yip.

While the science that will be created through the CCBR is vital, the centre will serve a variety of other important purposes. As Heather Munroe-Blum, Vice-President, Research and International Relations says,"The CCBR is not a biotechnological institute alone, but a forward-thinking academic research centre that will draw on superb scientists and researchers and develop and grow the next generation of talent. The involvement of graduate students is vital. Our primary goal in everything we do here is to grow talent by creating a better research and learning environment than exists anywhere in the world. That's a central component of the CCBR - it will be a classroom like no other for students and scientists alike."

This multidisciplinary research and teaching approach is taking hold across U of T through other new initiatives such as the Munk Centre for International Studies (set to open in the spring of 2000) and the Centre for Information Technology, which is currently being constructed.

The CCBR will provide hands-on training for approximately 200 graduate students and 100 post-doctoral fellows. The educational program created through the CCBR will offer new spins on current graduate programs in genetics, biochemistry, biophysics, pharmaceutical sciences and biomedical engineering. A new academic program in Proteomics and Bioinformatics has already been created, with input from the Faculties of Applied Science and Engineering, Medicine, and Arts and Science.

This multidisciplinary learning approach is applauded by Professor Glen Jones, Associate Professor of Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT).

"A learning environment is at its most effective when the people participating in it are exposed to a variety of disciplines and points of view. Multidisciplinary learning offers an excellent opportunity for students and faculty to move beyond the traditional boundaries of an academic discipline," says Jones, who is also Chair of OISE/UT's Department of Theory and Policy Studies in Education. "This kind of approach promotes the sharing of knowledge acquired from different perspectives and can lead to new levels of innovation and creativity. So there are a number of positives that can be derived from a multidisciplinary learning and research environment." Adds James Friesen, "One of the great benefits of the CCBR is that it is a mechanism for renewal. Because we're looking at 'new' science, change is a key element of the research and training program. The research that will be conducted in the CCBR will be truly leading-edge, so over time the people and direction of the programs will be completely different from who and what we have now."

Regeneration is essential for Canada, says Munroe-Blum. "Canada's greatest asset is its people. We must grow and keep great minds here and attract new ones, both faculty and students. This isn't just an issue for universities, it's a challenge for the whole country. Canada has every opportunity to be a world leader in this transformative research field. But if Canada is going to compete with research powers like the U.S., we need talented people. The way we attract these people is really quite simple - by providing excellent research facilities in a dynamic research-teaching environment. That is the CCBR. If you want world-class people, you need to give them world-class opportunities."

- Paul Fraumeni

University of Toronto