Kumacheva and Li among professors to receive funding for projects that accelerate scientific discovery

March 4, 2024 by A&S News

Canada’s population is aging, and with that comes a host of new stressors on the healthcare system — including an increasing number of hip and knee replacements. In a best-case scenario using current materials, a hip or knee replacement can last a maximum of 25 years. Now that the population is living longer, the rate of subsequent surgeries to replace, or fix, hip and knee replacements is poised to grow as well — adding even more stress on the system. New materials are needed to help solve this problem.

Enter self-driving labs (SDLs). SDLs combine artificial intelligence, robotics and advanced computing to discover new materials and molecules for commercial, clinical and industrial use in a fraction of the usual time and cost.

Assistant Professor Yu Zou, in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, will be using the tools an SDL offers in his quest to speed up the development of improved materials for hip and knee replacements. Zou and his team will use an SDL to rapidly test combinations of elements to find the alloys required for longer-lasting joint-replacements.

This kind of cutting-edge work is emblematic of the problems being tackled head-on by scientists receiving funding from the Acceleration Consortium’s (AC’s) Accelerate Grants, including department of chemistry professors Eugenia Kumacheva and Bowen Li.

Kumacheva received an Accelerate Seed grant for her proposal “Self-Driving Lab for the Synthesis of Upconversion Nanoparticles for Bioanalytical Sensing.”

These research projects are made possible by the almost $200 million grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) awarded to the AC last April — the largest federal research grant ever awarded to a Canadian university. The projects being enabled by the grant promise innovative advances in fields ranging from healthcare and climate change to sustainable materials design and food waste-management.

“Using AI and automation to carry out more laboratory experiments in a smarter way, we’ve supercharged the process of scientific discovery,” said Alán Aspuru-Guzik¸ director of the Acceleration Consortium and professor in the Departments of Chemistry and Computer Science in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “The creativity and the diversity of thought shown by the researchers on these projects tells me that the materially different future that the Acceleration Consortium is striving for is achievable in our lifetime.”

Li's Accelerate Translation grant will support his project “Self-Driving LNP Discovery Lab: An AI and Robotics-Powered Platform Facilitating mRNA Therapy Delivery”.

“The Accelerate Translation grant is crucial for advancing our work to develop a pioneering AI and robotics-powered platform," he said. "Our team aims to revolutionize mRNA therapy delivery by automating the synthesis and screening of vast libraries of ionizable lipid nanoparticles (LNPs). The integration of AI with robotics in this project facilitates the generation and optimization of new LNP formulations tailored for specific cell types, significantly speeding up the process of discovering effective delivery systems for mRNA therapeutics."

Li went on to explain this approach will not only enhance the efficiency and capacity of LNP library synthesis, but can also support the tailored development of delivery systems for mRNA-based treatments, including CAR T-cell cancer immunotherapies, with potential expansion to other applications such as gene editing.

“This suite of Acceleration Grants is an excellent example of how the Acceleration Consortium is advancing the globally recognized strategic research mission of the University of Toronto,” said Leah Cowen, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation, and strategic initiatives. “These grants will enable recipients to conduct high-impact, interdisciplinary accelerated research to discover materials that will improve our world."

“I congratulate the principal investigators and their teams who are leading these varied investigations, and I look forward to seeing their results in the accelerated timeline now made possible in part by CFREF and the remarkable demonstration of support for their work.”

The Acceleration Consortium opens its next funding competition in summer 2024, to welcome proposals for new research projects.

For a full list of grant recipients and to learn more about this story, visit the article by Sean Bettan of A&S News and Andrea Wiseman at the Accelleration Consortium.