The Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research (Donnelly CCBR) creates a unique organization at the University of Toronto where investigators from the Faculty of Medicine, the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering and the Faculty of Arts & Science are brought together. Donnelly CCBR is an open, fluid environment that encourages new ways of approaching biological problems by stimulating unconventional interactions among disciplines.

The essence of the Donnelly CCBR lies in three programs that span the leading areas of biomedical research: bioengineering and functional imaging; integrative biology; and models of disease. The Donnelly CCBR premise is that each program – and the entire centre – will thrive best if it includes biological, physical, computer and engineering scientists working together in a communal setting at the Universityof Toronto to shape and define the “New Biology.” 

When fully realized, the Donnelly CCBR will include more than 35 principal investigators and their teams. More than 25 investigators have moved into the Donnelly CCBR, and recruitment of new scientists will continue for several years. By creating an ideal interdisciplinary research environment in physically stunning space, the Donnelly CCBR will encourage outstanding minds to come to and stay in Canada. In fact, several new faculty members have already been recruited to the Donnelly CCBR from universities in the United States and Europe.  This cadre of new investigators includes the first joint recruits representing the Departments of Computer Science and Chemistry, and Faculties of Pharmacy and Medicine.

Here are some of the key research programs currently underway at the Donnelly CCBR:

A team of geneticists, led by Donnelly CCBR Director Brenda Andrews and fellow professors Charlie Boone and Timothy Hughes, have established a state-of-the-art functional genomics laboratory on the top floor of the centre. The lab aims to use the astounding techniques of post-genome biology to systematically explore the function of all genes in the cell. CCBR scientists, led by Professors Andrew Emili and Jack Greenblatt, are also exploring the far more complex set of all the proteins that those genes can generate: the proteome. Understanding and cataloguing the proteome is a massive computing task, requiring cutting-edge information technology and mass spectrometry equipment. The overall goal is to produce the first glimpse of the complex wiring diagram of the cell, and to use this diagram as a template for predicting how to manipulate the cell’s circuitry with small molecules or drugs.  This goal will be greatly facilitated by the establishment of a new chemical genetics program that will explore how small molecules such as drugs affect cells and organisms.  The program is led by Guri Giaever, a new recruit to the Donnelly CCBR from the Stanford Genome Centre, who is internationally recognized as a leader in the nascent field of ‘chemical genomics’.

In another lab in the building, Donnelly CCBR colleagues Professors Peter Zandstra and Cindi Morshead are engaged in exploring what may well be the most fascinating cells in the human body: stem cells. Zandstra’ s team is using engineering-based approaches such as modelling, molecular engineering and bioreactor design, to enable new stem cell based therapies. Morshead is investigating whether it is possible to activate the stem cells in a stroke victim’s brain to promote self-repair of the sustained neural damage. Interactions between the stem cell and genetics teams are likely to produce completely unanticipated new insights into understanding how stem cells work.

In complementary projects, Professors Molly Shoichet and Michael Sefton are using techniques of tissue engineering to discover new ways to encourage nerve cells to repair and grow. Materials science approaches are geared towards discovering new coatings for transplanted material to prevent immune rejection in patients. The CCBR aims to create an environment that will allow immediate ‘transfer’ of discoveries in one discipline to another – in this way, interesting questions can be quickly identified and the results applied to important biomedical problems. One can only imagine how interactions among tissue engineers, cell biologists, geneticists and others will promote advances to gene therapy, among other advances.

The Donnelly CCBR has also devoted an entire floor – more than 20,000 square feet – to the growing field of ‘bioinformatics’ and computational biology: the nexus of information science and biology. The large-scale biology projects in the Centre, some of which are outlined above, create massive amounts of data that are essentially meaningless unless analysed using innovative computer algorithms that help scientists discern important patterns. These patterns reveal new and important information about cell and organism function. In the past year, five new junior investigators have been recruited to the Donnelly CCBR, through collaborations involving the departments of Computer Science and the Faculty of Medicine:  Gary Bader (from Sloan Kettering), Michael Brudno (from UC Berkeley), Zhaolei Zhang (from Yale University), Quaid Morris (from University of Toronto), and Brendan Frey (from the Beckman Institute).

In addition to housing cutting-edge research, the Donnelly CCBR will be a collaborative classroom, providing hands-on training for hundreds for undergraduate, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.