OIRM puts initial investment into heart, vision and immunotherapy research

New regenerative medicine research funding, valued at more than $1 million in 2015, was recently announced by OIRM. Researchers at institutions from across the province seek to bring new methods and understanding to the fight against degenerative diseases, with possible outcomes that include cell therapy clinical trials to treat heart disease, age-related macular degeneration and a vaccine for treating specific types of cancer.

Included in this funding are three new Disease Teams, which focus on areas with large costs in healthcare but also present substantial global opportunities for improved treatments and outcomes. As it continues to launch its strategic investments, OIRM will welcome other areas of disease focus.

With a growing and aging population, Ontario faces significant health care challenges in the decades ahead. Currently, it is estimated that the direct and indirect costs associated with degenerative diseases in Ontario, such as heart disease, multiple sclerosis and arthritis, exceed $75 billion per year.  For those directly affected by these illnesses, the personal costs are immeasurable. Finding a way to alleviate suffering while improving function and productivity is therefore of paramount importance.

Today’s research and the speed of new discoveries in stem cell and regenerative medicine research suggest that new treatments – and perhaps even cures – for these diseases may not be too far off.

As part of its launch on November 25, 2014, the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine (OIRM) announced the first round of funded research grants valued at more than $1 million over one year.  The eight projects [link to funded research page] address areas of significant need and potential treatments for heart disease, blindness, cancer, and sepsis, along with critical new lines of study to advance knowledge in liver function, immunity and neurodevelopmental disorders such as Rett syndrome.

Three larger Disease Challenge Team projects bring together research, clinical and commercialization expertise across four institutions located in Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto, with contributions from researchers at the universities of Alberta, Dalhousie and Victoria. Each is valued at $250,000 over one year; they are described below:

  • Cardiac repair – This study will build on earlier work showing that cardiomyocytes (heart cells) created from stem cells and injected into damaged hearts can create new heart muscle in synergy with existing tissue. The aim of the research team will be to use advanced bioengineering techniques to grow greater numbers of cardiomyocytes for transplantation into animal models, the success of which will lead to a human clinical trial to treat heart disease. Read full research summary.
  • Vision – This research team based in Toronto, with investigators in Victoria, Edmonton and Halifax, aims to define a new approach to the treatment of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD affects the light-sensitive cone receptors in the retina of the eye, and is a leading cause of blindness. With no effective cures available, researchers around the globe have concentrated on stem cells as a promising line of treatment. This study will develop a procedure to grow and enrich new photoreceptors for transplantation into blind animal hosts and define methods to measure visual improvement. Read full research summary.
  • Immunotherapy – This project leverages the discovery of a new type of immune cell (a specialized dendric cell) that can be made from stem cells. In the lab, these cells can be trained to instruct the immune system to attack cancer cells in tumours, leaving healthy cells intact. The research team will further their earlier research which demonstrated that these specialized dendric cells can bring a tenfold improvement in immune response by finding optimal growing conditions for the cells, laying the foundation for testing in humans and the development of a vaccine. Read full research summary.

In parallel with the larger grants, five New Ideas Grants were also announced by OIRM interim co-Directors Drs. Janet Rossant and Peter Zandstra and the Honourable Reza Moridi, Ontario Minister of Research and Innovation. Each valued at $75,000, the New Idea projects represent research at the discovery level at five Ontario institutions, with a goal to foster cutting-edge research in stem cell biology and/or technology:

  • Liver stem cell expansion – Until now, research to restore the liver affected by disease or failure has been hampered by poor outcomes in attempts to grow mature hepatocytes (liver cells) in the lab. This project will advance earlier work that identified a genetic modification, which allows improved control and expansion of liver cells. This knowledge will be used to grow larger numbers of mature liver cells in the lab. Read full research summary.
  • Gene mutation in heart disease – Most heart muscle disease can be traced to a single gene mutation in heart muscle cells. This project will use new technologies that allow the diseased heart cells to be grown in the lab and studied, with an aim of identifying a new approach to correcting the mutation. Read full research summary.
  • Protein regulation in stem cells and Rett syndrome – This study will build on the discovery that the gene MECP2, identified as a cause of Rett syndrome, begins production of a protein only after a stem cell has become a neuron. They will look for other similar mechanisms in human embryonic stem cells and identify a network of disease-causing genes that are misregulated in Rett syndrome. Read full research summary.
  • Bioengineered thymus – This project will address a need to improve the immune function of individuals as they age or when compromised by aggressive chemo- or radiation therapies and other genetic conditions. By creating a three-dimensional bioengineered thymus (the source of our immune system’s T cells) the research team aims to better understand how the thymus and T cells function with an ultimate goal of finding more effective methods transplant thymic tissue or immune cells into a patient. Read full research summary.
  • Septic shock – This project is part of a current clinical trial to examine the safety and possible benefit of using stem cells for the treatment of severely ill patients with septic shock, which has a mortality rate of 40% among patients in the intensive care unit. The research team will explore how gene regulation could improve outcomes for future phases of the trial. Read full research summary.

Building on more than 50 years of world-leading research in stem cells and regenerative medicine, OIRM was launched in 2014 with a vision to revolutionize the treatment of degenerative diseases and make Ontario a global leader in the development of stem cell-based products and therapies. More than 150 researchers at universities and institutions across the province involved with OIRM, with additional contributions from key clinical, commercial and health charity partners. OIRM is based in Toronto and was realized with a $3 million investment from Ontario’s Ministry of Research and Innovation.