Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) has grown to become one of Canada’s largest research institutes in its relatively short 16-year history. Research expenditures have more than tripled in the last five years. In 2004/2005, external funding topped $85 million, a number that is projected to exceed $90 million in 2005/2006. As of 2004/2005, SRI is second in external funding among all University of Toronto-affiliated research institutes.

The main aims of SRI are to understand and prevent disease, and develop treatments that enhance and extend life. These aims derive from a core vision: to achieve discovery and its translation into the clinic to set best practices.

Research at SRI spans the spectrum of discovery from basic science to translational research to knowledge transfer. A distinguishing feature of SRI is the integration between clinical and scientific activities. There are seven strategic programs: aging and population health, cancer, heart and circulation, neurosciences, musculoskeletal, perinatal and gynaecology, and trauma and critical care; and four scientific disciplines: clinical epidemiology, clinical integrative biology, imaging, and molecular and cellular biology. Each scientist is aligned with a discipline and a strategic program. This enables scientists and clinicians to work with one another in tight-knitted pursuit of the same aims toward the same core vision, one that ultimately will benefit humanity as a whole.

More than 170 scientists and clinician-scientists at SRI are working in the following three priority science areas toward achieving that vision:

–          Genes, proteins and cells:  Research in this area, which spans strategic program areas with a particular emphasis on regenerative medicine, aims to discover and explain how molecules and cells work toward preventing disease and improving diagnosis, treatment and prognosis. Main areas of expertise in this area are inflammation, infection and immunity, stem cell biology, cell cycle control, signal transduction, vascular modelling, angiogenesis and antiangiogenesis.

–          Imaging: Research in this area concentrates on the development and refinement of technologies to visualize cells, tissues and organs. Blending physics, mathematics and engineering, SRI expertise spans multiple imaging modalities: ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging, digital mammography and tomosynthesis, X-ray, and positron emission tomography / computed tomography. These technologies are clinically relevant to the diagnosis of disease, and the guiding and monitoring of therapies, including minimally invasive surgical techniques, across strategic program areas.

–          Clinical epidemiology: Research in this area explores the causes, consequences and treatment of disease to improve patient care and ensure health care resources are used wisely. SRI’s expertise is in applying epidemiologic methods to issues in medicine across strategic program areas. This includes analyzing disease incidence, treatment efficacy and outcomes, as well as policies and the economic impact of diagnostic tools and therapies. Methods are diverse: clinical trials, meta-analyses, surveys and database studies. Sunnybrook scientists work with faculty at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and with policy makers to inform decisions about health care.

In a new and exciting initiative, SRI is establishing the Centre for Health Services Sciences, which will be dedicated to integrating knowledge into the health care system. This centre’s activity will focus on uncovering the mechanisms of human health and disease with an eye to clinical translation.

Commercialization is also a focus of research efforts at SRI, as is evidenced by several spin-off companies that have emerged from here, including VisualSonics Inc and Sentinelle Medical Inc. In 2004/2005, we had more than $4 million in industry-sponsored research from Apotex Inc., Bristol-Myers, GE Healthcare and sanofi pasteur, and many others. Indeed, the world headquarters of sanofi pasteur’s Cancer Vaccine Program is located here. Sanofi pasteur, Canada’s largest vaccine company, sponsors cancer vaccine research at SRI through its Cancer Vaccine Network, thereby capitalizing on the acumen of our immunologists. Sanofi pasteur provides the vaccines, and SRI scientists test them in clinical trials, the results of which then inform the creation of new and better vaccines.

Breakthroughs at Sunnybrook Research Institute

Sunnybrook Research Institute continues to invent the future of health care and achieve breakthrough after breakthrough:

  • Immunologists at SRI were the first in the world to create a simple system to generate T cells, a vital component of the immune system, in a Petri dish. This discovery points the way to the eventual development of clinical therapies for people with devastated immune systems, for example, those with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
  • Imaging scientists at SRI developed the world’s first method to image blood flow in the microscopic vessels of the heart in real time, a technique now used internationally.
  • Cell biologists at SRI showed that lower doses of chemotherapy given with antiangiogenic drugs significantly delays the growth of tumours in preclinical models, a molecular breakthrough that clinical trials teams worldwide are now seeking to validate.
  • Neuroscientists at SRI showed that bright artificial light therapy is as effective as antidepressant medication in the treatment of winter depression. They also showed it works faster, and produces less agitation and sleep disturbance and fewer palpitations.
  • Researchers at Toronto Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Centre were the first to show that magnetic resonance imaging detects more breast cancer tumours, earlier, compared with mammography, ultrasound or a clinical exam in women with the BRCA1 / BRCA2 gene.
  • Heart and circulation researchers at SRI provided compelling evidence to suggest that artery grafts from the forearm should be used in place of vein grafts from the leg for heart bypass surgery, a finding that challenges more than 30 years of surgical practice.