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Broken hearts are the focus of this year’s McLean Award winners: bioengineers Milica Radisic and Craig Simmons.

Part of the Connaught Fund, the prestigious McLean Award honours emerging leaders in basic research in the fields of physics, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, engineering sciences and statistics. Recipients must have received their PhD within the past 12 years.

Typically, only one McLean award is handed out per year.

“The quality of McLean applications this year was extremely high – so high that the Connaught Committee decided to make two awards,” said Professor Peter Lewis, U of T’s Associate Vice-President, Research and Innovation.

Professors Radisic and Simmons both hold appointments in the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) –  a biomedical research institute stretching across the Faculties of Applied Science & Engineering, Medicine, and Dentistry. They share a research focus on regenerative medicine for the heart.

It’s a fact not lost on the recipients.

Professor Radisic

“As we were working very hard this January to prepare our proposals, we encouraged each other along the way, knowing that probably only one of us could win,” said Professor Radisic, Canada Research Chair in Functional Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering and Associate Professor at the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) and the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry. “I’m glad to be a part of the research community that is successful in cultivating the spirit of research excellence and collegiality at the same time.”

Professor Radisic is being recognized for her work towards enabling the regeneration of cardiac tissue after it has been damaged – for example, after a heart attack. In conjunction with the discovery of a novel new peptide, QHREDGS, that might be capable of enhancing cardiac regeneration, bone regeneration or wound healing, Professor Radisic is developing a prototype network that involves the seeding of vascular tissues with cells that she hopes will create rapid new tissue growth.

“I am greatly honoured that the Connaught Committee recognized my research with the 2012 McLean Award. The funds will enable me to hire students and post-docs to develop new solutions to the vascularization of engineered tissues in vitro and in vivo,” she said.

Named one of the Top 35 Innovators under 35 by the MIT Technology Review in 2008, Professor Radisic also received the Young Engineer Medal from the Engineers Canada Society earlier this year.

Craig Simmons

Craig Simmons, Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering, IBBME, and the Biomaterials Department in the Faculty of Dentistry, holds a Canada Research Chair in Mechanobiology. He uses a cross-disciplinary approach to tackling the problems of heart-valve disease and musculoskeletal degeneration – two problems that appear to have related origins. By examining the mechanical properties of cells, Simmons and his students seek to determine some of the root causes for these deadly and costly diseases –  discoveries that could lead to new or improved treatments.

“I am thrilled and honoured for this recognition of my research group’s contributions and the promise of our work,” said Professor Simmons. “I’m fortunate to work with an exceptional group of students and researchers, and I’m grateful for the support of the McLean Award, as it will help me to continue to attract outstanding people to our team.”

Creating a paradigm shift in understanding how these microscopic building blocks function requires new tools. Simmons and his students have been engineering novel microfluidic devices – small devices that allow for the minute movement and study of liquids – to analyze cell mechanics in new ways, along with new computational models with which to analyze the data.

“Professors Radisic and Simmons are both conducting cutting-edge research on tissue engineering that could lead to breakthroughs and improved health for Canadians,” said Professor Lewis. “On behalf of the University of Toronto, I extend my congratulations to them both on these well-deserved awards.”

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