Chemistry faculty part of new precision medicine initiative at U of T

April 16, 2019 by Kate Richards

The University of Toronto has launched the Precision Medicine Initiative at U of T (PRiME), a new cross-institutional, multi-faculty effort that will leverage the university's excellence in pharmaceutical sciences, medicine, physical sciences and engineering. It will also establish Toronto as a leading centre for precision medicine.

“PRiME will bring together scientific leaders, students and post-doctoral fellows from across U of T to spur collaborative efforts focused on the identification of new disease targets, the discovery of molecularly tailored therapeutics and the development of next-generation diagnostics for precision medicine,” said Shana KelleyUniversity Professor at U of T’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy with a cross-appointment to the department of chemistry and academic director of PRiME.

“The idea is to bring together the cutting-edge work we are doing in precision medicine and give it a central focus point and vision.”

Precision medicine is a burgeoning approach to health care that tailors medical treatment to the specific characteristics of a patient’s disease. This tailored approach is crucial to effectively combat disease given that many conditions – including cancer – have several different subtypes that must be treated differently. 

While genomics has revealed variability between disease subtypes, the field is now moving towards more comprehensive approaches that move beyond reading DNA sequences and seek to incorporate information about the proteome, metabolome, and even the microbiome.

Disease complexity requires a multidisciplinary approach to treatment

At launch, PRiME has more than 50 researchers from U of T, including 16 with appointments to the department of chemistry. The initial focus areas will include:

  • Disease biology and therapeutic target development
  • Next-generation biologics for oncology and regenerative medicine
  • High-precision diagnostics for non-invasive disease monitoring
  • Targeted small molecule development
  • Biology-on-chip systems as models of disease
  • Nanomedicine strategies for drug delivery

“Our vision is that PRiME will lead the next generation of high-impact research and translational breakthroughs in precision medicine that will improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, neurodegenerative, metabolic and infectious diseases,” said Kelley, who is also working to establish a collaborative and interdisciplinary trainee fellowship program as part of PRiME. 

“U of T is ranked within the top ten universities globally in the production of influential research,” said Vivek Goel, vice-president of research and innovation. “An impactful, cross-divisional initiative such as PRiME is possible here because of the extraordinary breadth and depth of excellence we offer across multiple disciplines and in collaboration with our partner hospitals.”

A PRiME location

 “U of T is a globally recognized powerhouse in biomedical research, engineering and the physical sciences, and this attracts deeply talented students and trainees,” said Kelley. “We are also based steps away from some of the leading academic teaching hospitals in the world, which is crucial to delivering clinically focused discoveries that can be translated to medical care.”

The proximity factor is a huge advantage for PRiME as it removes a number of activation barriers other institutions might face, Kelley said. “The fact that we are connected to Toronto’s hospital corridor opens up the opportunity for the more informal, casual conversations that really spark exciting new ideas.”

In addition to cutting-edge biomedical research, U of T is also recognized as an engine for innovation and entrepreneurship, having recently announced a landmark $100-million gift to support the soon-to-be built Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre.  The university’s innovation network is among the world’s top five university-based incubators, with demonstrated success in health and life sciences-focused startups.

Looking ahead

PRiME is just getting off the ground but is working speedily to build infrastructure and a team that will help grow precision medicine research on campus, said Kelley.

“We are aiming to announce our trainee fellowship competition by the end of the academic year and plan to host a launch event in the fall that will showcase high-impact research on campus. We are also working to build a network of industry partners and collaborators to further the patient impact goals of PRiME.”  

PRiME members with appointments to the department of chemistry:

  • Aaron Wheeler
  • Rob Batey
  • Gilbert Walker
  • Mitch Winnick
  • Eugenia Kumacheva
  • Mark Nitz
  • Drew Wooley
  • Deborah Zamble
  • Andrei Yudin
  • Ron Kluger
  • Mark Lautens
  • Hui Peng
  • Becca Jockusch
  • Shana Kelley
  • Walid Houry
  • Molly Shoichet
  • Warren Chan