New centre a hothouse for leading edge research

473

Personalized medicine – unlocking the power of the body’s own immune system – is one of the most promising fields of global medical research today. McMaster University stands at the leading edge of that field with the opening of the DeGroote Centre of Learning and Discovery.

The new facility – funded in part through a $105-million gift by businessman-entrepreneur Michael G. DeGroote – has vaulted McMaster into the big leagues of research excellence. Scientists at the centre will be seeking cures for cancers, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other life-threatening viruses and chronic diseases.

The DeGroote gift – the largest single donation to an institution by an individual in Canada – has allowed the school to go after research stars such as cancer stem cell specialists Mick Bhatia and Sheila Singh. Bhatia was being wooed by Harvard University and University of California at Davis.

The complex is designed to be an open research hothouse – there are few walls between labs on the top two floors – that fosters the free exchange of ideas between researchers. McMaster believes that such research synergies can shorten the time between laboratory discovery and patient therapy.

Much of the current research involves the hunt for personalized vaccines against cancers and other life-threatening illnesses. By stimulating responses from the body’s immune system with relatively non-toxic treatments, McMaster scientists hope to destroy cancer cells without damaging healthy tissue.

“This is a leading-edge therapy around the world,” said Jack Gauldie, director of both the Institute for Molecular Medicine and Health and of the Centre for Gene Therapeutics. “We are the first in the country to use this approach. It’s new and we don’t know how successful it will be yet.”

In diseases such as cancers and some chronic infectious illnesses, scientists can actually create customized vaccines for each patient. Despite the complexity of the technology, the intent is to develop this process so that patients can receive treatment on an outpatient basis.

The research involves isolating DNA from tumour cells and using this with the patient’s own white cells to immunize patients against their cancers. In effect, the idea is to have tumours instruct the immune system to ‘read’ the differences between DNA from normal and cancerous cellular materials. In many cases, the body does not readily recognize such differences.

Clinical trials are ongoing with vaccines against breast and skin cancers. And McMaster is almost set to go with a vaccine for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a common form of leukemia. Vaccines may well succeed in cases where a tumour has been removed and doctors want to prevent the recurrence of cancer.

Similarly, this technology has applications for infectious diseases. For example, molecular virologists study how a body responds to viruses. That study leads to vaccines that would give the immune system “a kick in the pants”, says clinical haematologist Dr. Ronan Foley, a pioneer in vaccine development in Hamilton.

The vaccine approach is being used with other diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis. By using a person’s own cellular material, and manipulating the DNA of the infectious agent, McMaster plans to create vaccines that are highly efficient in stimulating a person’s immune defences.

The enhanced profile created by the DeGroote complex will pay dividends in greater links to research centres and bio-pharma companies outside Canada. For example, the school has teamed up with North Carolina-based Argos Therapeutics to develop the vaccine against lymphocytic leukemia.

McMaster believes its open-concept spaces – meant to spur scientific collaboration – will help shorten the gap between laboratory discovery and patient treatments. It might take a decade now to go from lab bench to patient bedside. McMaster hopes to shrink that timeline to six or seven years.

The collaboration means that scientists at Bhatia’s Institute for Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Research inter-act with investigators from the Centre for Functional Genomics, the basic platform for cell and gene studies, led by John Hassell. In turn, these units work with the Centre for Gene Therapeutics, headed by Gauldie.

About 250 researchers and related staff will be at the DeGroote centre once the full complement has been ramped up over the next two or three years. The DeGroote investment was the seed that allowed McMaster University to become a real world player and to attract elite scientists. It led to other funding from provincial and federal governments, as well as from private donors.

“Without the DeGroote money,” said Hassell, a breast cancer researcher, “we wouldn’t have anywhere near the faculty and staff we ultimately will have to pursue this research area. These developments have led to the creation of what will be a real vibrant research enterprise.”

The five-storey DeGroote centre, officially opened in September, also includes other world-class research facilities, including a North-American wide study on West Nile virus. Within the complex are patient-care wards Ñ the centre is linked to the adjacent McMaster University Medical Centre – and educational areas.