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U of T experts receive nearly $2.5 million for collaborative research on COVID-19

(Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Two projects involving researchers at the University of Toronto and its partner hospitals, each aimed at better understanding and tackling COVID-19, have been awarded a combined total of nearly $2.5 million to support infrastructure and equipment needs.

The funding is being awarded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) Exceptional Opportunities Fund in an effort to help educational institutions, research organizations and hospitals meet urgent equipment needs for research projects related to the pandemic.

The projects – the creation of a bank for biological samples and a program to better understand the biology of SARS-CoV-2 – are being led by Drs. Rae Yeung and Slava Epelman in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and, respectively, The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and the University Health Network (UHN).

“University of Toronto researchers are playing a critical role in addressing the ongoing public health crisis and are working tirelessly to assist the Canadian and global response to the pandemic,” said Christine Allen, U of T’s associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives, and a professor in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy.

“This funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation supports two important research projects that will see experts from U of T and partner hospitals combine their expertise to increase our understanding of COVID-19 and improve the lives of Canadians affected by this deadly disease.”

In particular, the fund is providing $1.5 million to help set up the UT COVID-19 Biobank, which will provide safe, secure and standardized collection of biologic samples, such as blood and respiratory secretions, that are critical to answering a range of research questions surrounding COVID-19.

Led by Yeung, a professor in the departments of immunology and pediatrics at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and senior scientist in cell biology research at SickKids, the biobank will support the collection of data from some 540,000 biologic samples from over 57,000 Canadians involved in local, national and international research studies, and will support 72 research studies across Canada.

Other U of T experts working on the biobank project include Angela Cheung, a professor in the department of medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and senior scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute in UHN; Claudia dos Santos, associate professor in the department of medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and clinician scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital; Shahid Husain, associate professor in the department of medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and affiliate scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute at UHN; and Rulan Parekh, professor in the department of medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and associate chief of clinical research at SickKids Research Institute.

The Exceptional Opportunities Fund is also awarding $950,000 for a project led by Epelman, an assistant professor in the department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute at UHN. The initiative will help better characterize the inflammatory and cardiac effects of COVID-19.

People with a history of cardiovascular disease are known to have a higher risk of adverse clinical outcomes when infected with COVID-19, while emerging evidence also suggests that COVID-19 can affect the brain and cause neurological damage.

The research program led by Epelman will better position the scientific community to identify and develop vaccines, as well as therapies to address the detrimental health effects associated with COVID-19, helping to protect vulnerable populations as well as lessen the burden on Canada’s health-care system.

The project also includes the following U of T researchers: Phyllis Billia, assistant professor in the department of medical biophysics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and senior scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute at UHN; Tak Mak, University Professor in the departments of immunology and medical biophysics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and senior scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre; Philippe Monnier, assistant professor in the department of physiology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and senior scientist at the Krembil Research Institute at UHN; and Clinton Robbins, associate professor in the department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a senior scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute at UHN.

“Canadian researchers and scientists are helping to protect our health and safety and are key to finding our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and industry, in a statement.

“With this funding through the Exceptional Opportunities Fund, the Government of Canada is ensuring these talented Canadians have the equipment and tools to support them in their very important work.”

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