'The time for PRiME is now': Symposium looks at innovations in precision medicine

October 9, 2019 by Kate Richards

More than 200 University of Toronto scientists and trainees, along with leaders from industry and community partners, attended the inaugural symposium for the Precision Medicine Initiative (PRiME) to share recent research innovations in precision medicine.

“The time for PRiME is now,” said Christine Allen, U of T's associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives, as she kicked off the symposium.

Launched in April 2019, PRiME is a new cross-institutional effort that will establish Toronto as a leading centre for precision medicine. It brings together world-class scientists, engineers and clinicians from across four U of T faculties to tackle needs in drug discovery, diagnostics and disease biology.

“While the number of targeted therapies is increasing, the majority of patients still receive conventional therapies,” said Shana KelleyUniversity Professor at U of T’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and director of PRiME. “A multidisciplinary approach that goes beyond genomics and mutational profiling is required to accelerate new discoveries and realize the promise of precision medicine. We have that capability at U of T.”  

The symposium featured research highlights from the first cohort of PRiME Fellows, 10 high-calibre U of T trainees who are undertaking projects that combine the expertise of at least two scientists from different faculties, forging many new cross-faculty collaborations.

Margot Karlikow is a postdoctoral researcher in Assistant Professor Keith Pardee’s lab in the department of pharmaceutical sciences at the Faculty of Pharmacy. Kalikow is also a PRiME Fellowship awardee working on a new diagnostic technology that blends synthetic biology and CRISPR to detect infectious diseases rapidly and at a lower cost than conventional methods. By connecting her with Professor Gilbert Walker’s team in the department of chemistry, her fellowship with PRiME will allow her to investigate how nanoparticles could be used to expand and potentially improve her diagnostic approach. 

“PRiME is helping us bridge worlds to reach potential that we haven’t considered before, to see if you can push your innovation further,” she says. “This gives me the chance to explore an entirely new domain.”

PRiME will also function as a portal for industry to connect with U of T. Top leaders and innovation seekers from pharmaceutical and medical technology companies attended the symposium, with several participating in a panel led by Stéphane Angers, associate dean of research at the Faculty of Pharmacy and associate director of PRiME.

The panel discussed what factors contribute to successful academic-industry collaborations, the unique strength of Toronto in building new solutions that can be translated into clinical practice and affordability of new therapies. 

“In Toronto you have an opportunity to get clinical and basic science closer together, to mix these two things efficiently,” said Michel Bouvier, CEO, Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) referring to the close proximity of U of T’s affiliated hospitals as a great advantage. “This seems [like] something easy to do but it is quite difficult to achieve.”  

Panelist Philip Tagari, vice-president of research at Amgen Inc., talked about the need to work upstream when it comes to managing disease. “We need to move away from the ‘break and fix’ mentality, to predict disease before it occurs so that [the patient] never has a hip fracture,” rather than waiting for hip fractures to occur and then treating them. “This is the challenge for the industry, but also the medical system as a whole,” he said.  

“PRiME is off to a great start and we are building momentum every day,” said Kelley. “The partnerships we are developing will be critical to the success of our initiative and our ability to improve individual health outcomes and the sustainability of our health system overall.”

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