Posted October 16th, 2017 by Chris Sorenson

From lab-grown organs to smart cities: U of T Engineering researchers receive support from CFI

Milica Radisic, whose research focuses on growing 3D models of human organs, is one of four U of T Engineering researchers awarded funding through the Canada Foundation for Innovation in the latest round. (Photo: Caz Zyvatkauskas)

Mice and rats have long been unwitting test subjects for drug companies – even though their furry little bodies don’t mimic human physiology very well.

But research by Milica Radisic (IBBME, ChemE), a professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, has helped open the door to a much better option: testing pharmaceuticals on human organ tissue grown in three dimensions in the lab.

That’s what Radisic and her co-researchers are hoping to accomplish with the creation of the Ontario-Quebec centre for organ-on-a-chip engineering, one of several U of T-led projects to receive funding Thursday from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, or CFI.

“Placing cells in these controlled, micro-fabricated 3D environments allows you to precisely control the mechanical properties and matrix around the cells, as well as flow input and output,” said Radisic, who is a Canada Research Chair in Functional Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering. “It enables researchers to go to the next level and capture specific cell functions.

“We hope this will enable us to discover better drugs.”

The centre – a partnership between U of T, McMaster University, Ryerson University, McGill University and the University Health Network – will receive nearly $4.2 million from CFI to further develop and scale up production of tissue models for the heart, kidney, liver, placenta and tumours, as well as develop tools to analyze their performance.

Radisic’s lab has made particular progress growing heart cells on a biodegradable scaffold built from thin layers of polymer that includes an intricate channel pattern to replicate blood vessels. She credits the success of the technology, called AngioChip, for helping the organ-on-a-chip project secure the necessary funding for its launch.

“Our goal is to be a truly national centre for organ-on-a-chip engineering that will benefit researchers across Canada,” Radisic said.

Two dozen researchers from across U of T, including faculty based at partner hospitals, are associated with projects awarded $106.6 million by CFI to further research in everything from smart transportation to the evolution of distant galaxies.

“This funding will bolster important research that not only creates knowledge, but contributes to important advances in fields that range from health care to smart, sustainable cities – helping drive innovation in Canada’s economy in the process,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation.

In all, CFI awarded more than $554 million to 117 new projects at universities, colleges and research hospitals across the country. It passed a significant milestone in the process, having funded more than 10,000 projects since it began in 1997.

“The Innovation Fund encourages institutions and researchers to think big and strive to be global leaders by conducting world-class research,” said Kirsty Duncan, the federal minister of science, in a statement.

“This funding pushes researchers to aim higher in their pursuits by collaborating across disciplines, institutions and sectors.”

The full list of U of T Engineering professors who will receive CFI funding in the latest round includes:

  • Peter Herman (ECE), Lab-in-Fibre: Smart glass probing and distributed sensing microsystems
  • Alberto Leon-Garcia (ECE), Smart city Internet of Things (IoT) testbed
  • Milos Popovic (IBBME), The centre for advancing neurotechnological innovation to application
  • Milica Radisic (IBBME, ChemE), Ontario-Quebec centre for organ-on-a-chip engineering