The creation of the McGill University Life Sciences Complex heralds the beginning of what promises to be an exciting era in life sciences research, one that is destined to pioneer new scientific breakthroughs, change the theory and practice of medicine, and improve human life for generations to come. Research projects at the complex will focus on five biomedical fields: Cancer, Complex Traits, Chemical Biology, Developmental Biology, and Cell Information Systems.
Research into the biological nature of cancer requires a multi-faceted, interdisciplinary approach. Strong collaboration between lab- and clinic-based researchers is the key to advancing our understanding of this all-too-common disease. Researchers will focus their efforts in five core areas: breast cancer, embryonic development and cancer, stem cells and signaling, metabolism and cancer, and DNA damage and instability.
The new Cancer Research Building will house world-renowned researchers from both the McGill Cancer Centre and the Molecular Oncology Group of the McGill University Health Centre, Royal Victoria Hospital Pavillion, following a fusion between the two under a new name: the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Centre. This will bring world-renowned researchers under the same roof for the first time to examine the interactions between genes and proteins and to determine their roles in the cancer process.
“They are not individual rooms, but open spaces where investigators work side-by-side in collaboration, sharing the same chemicals, equipment and facilities,” said Dr. Michel Tremblay, an accomplished cancer researcher with more than 25 years of experience, who is the Director of the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Centre. “This is a much more scientifically conducive, efficient and moneysaving way to do research, hastening the pace of scientific discoveries and improving quality of life for cancer patients.”
Chemical biology uses small molecules to study and manipulate biological systems. At the interface between chemistry and biology, these scientists will identify proteins or key pathways that are important in the disease process, driving the development of modern therapeutics to treat human diseases. Furthermore, its focus on determining protein function and elucidating the molecular mechanism of diseases makes chemical biology a central component of the Complex’s other thematic approaches. The new Life Sciences Complex provides researchers with modern resources and an extremely rich environment to extend knowledge and build value into their discoveries.
“Chemical biology acts as a bridge between laboratory research and clinical trials,” said Dr. David Thomas, Canada Research Chair in Molecular Genetics. “It is no longer sufficient to just make a discovery. Today, people question where that discovery is going to take us: you cured this yesterday, but what did you cure today and what are you going to do tomorrow?”
Working in a relatively new area of research, the Complex Traits Group looks at how many genes interact to cause disease, and what role environmental factors play. Outfitted with a sequence of our genetic blueprint, powerful bioinformatics tools, and the ability to observe how proteins interact with each other and with cells, researchers can now explore the fundamental causes of human illness, leading to the identification of new pathways, genes and proteins involved in disease onset, progression and outcome. Most important, these discoveries will serve to develop new tools for better prevention and treatment of these diseases.
“This research area is crucial to understanding variations in disease susceptibility and therapeutic success,” said Dr. Philippe Gros, a Biochemistry professor and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. “This is a guiding principle for the future of health care delivery.”
Just how useful this pillar is to the Life Sciences Complex is shown in the discovery last year by a team of researchers, led by Dr. Gros, which identified the gene that causes spina bifida, the second-most common birth defect in humans.
Developmental biology is a relatively new field expected to revolutionize drug discoveries by investigating how and under what conditions genes exert their influence upon organisms. Discoveries made here will affect the lives of millions of people around the world. When errors in normal growth and development occur at the start of life, miscarriages or birth defects are often the result. When the normal regulation of development goes wrong later on, diseases like cancer or neurodegeneration result. Advances in developmental biology are essential if we are to comprehend the basic causes of major disorders that ultimately impact a large proportion of humanity.
McGill has scored notable successes in the field of developmental biology over the years, including the discovery of how the Bicaudal-C protein controls RNA synthesis of other proteins. The Life Sciences Complex’s cutting-edge facilities and collaborative philosophy will help take that to the next level. “People working in the complex will be encouraged to work even more closely than they have in the past,” said Dr. Paul Lasko, Chair of McGill’s Biology Department. “The life sciences require this level of co-operation today.”
Cell Information Systems
Cell Information Systems represents yet another developing field created by revolutionary breakthroughs in the study of genomics. Cell Information Systems researchers investigate the ways cells pass information from one to another, as in DNA or protein messenger molecules. This knowledge is crucial to the understanding of how disease develops, and how we can best control disease.
Led by Hosmer Professor in Physiology Dr. Alvin Shrier, who in 2007 identified a protein important to the understanding of a mysterious and often fatal disorder of the heart’s electrical rhythm, the Cell Information Systems facility at the Life Sciences Complex will address a wide range of research issues focusing on more than 1,000 different cell types in the human body. Indeed, how these cells function, divide, communicate and respond to external stimuli is the essence of life itself.