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Researchers hail $190M funding boost for U of T labs

Vanessa Williams is becoming very familiar with some very special mice.

The PhD student at the University of Toronto is checking their cells to see if they possess the mutations for kidney disease, trying to see if a drug used for cancer patients may be used to treat kidney ailments.

But Williams is conducting cutting-edge science in an outdated facility.

This is about to change, thanks to an injection of $ 98 million in federal and provincial cash announced Thursday, which will benefit her lab and 545 others across U of T’s three campuses.

Along with a $ 91.8 million contribution from the university, the funds will support the Lab Innovation for Toronto (LIFT) project, effectively a $ 189.8 million upgrade for the U of T facilities.

“This is a great day, not only for U of T but also for higher education,” U of T President Meric Gertler said at the announcement at the university’s Medical Sciences Building.

Investing in the scientific infrastructure of our community has never been more important, or more strategic,” Gertler added.

The project is “a once-in-a-lifetime investment,” said federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains as he unveiled the government’s contribution

It is part of a renewed effort on behalf of the federal government “to position Canada as a global centre for innovation,” Bains said, adding “the war on science is over.”

The labs to be renovated are, on average, 50 years old, said Scott Mabury, vice-president of operations at U of T. The revitalization project — expected to be completed by the spring of 2018 — will address basic infrastructure improvements, increase usable space, and expand industry partnerships.

It is the largest single infrastructure project by any level of government in U of T’s history.

Medical, dental, biology, chemistry, and engineering labs will all be revamped thanks to the investment, as well as an electro-acoustic music studio.

In total, 47 per cent of U of T’s research space will be renovated in nine different academic divisions, improving facilities for an estimated 1,100 researchers and 5,500 students.

Williams is among those who will reap the benefits. She says the cash boost will help her work in U of T’s kidney research lab “immensely.”

The investment will “transform the work we do,” Williams said.

Without up-to-date equipment, some of their work has to be farmed out to other facilities, she explained. Right now, working in an outdated facility, the kidney research team depends on labs outside of the province to perform procedures and tests that demand more advanced equipment.

The lab was once “state of the art” — back in the 1960s when it was first built, said Dr. James Scholey, principal investigator in the kidney research lab where Williams works.

For Scholey, the funds will ensure that lab facilities match the calibre of its occupants, one of U of T’s “tremendous strengths.”

“Our asset here is the graduate students,” he said. “The infrastructure is what we’re concerned about.”

The renovation of Scholey’s lab will improve safety and efficiency, address a “long-standing concern with asbestos” and create space for researchers of different disciplines to interact.

To Scholey, the “cross-fertilization” of disciplines is critical for the growth and development of science. It “raises the energy level,” he said.

The project will facilitate more efficient research for Scholey and his team, as they attempt to identify early medical changes in children with diabetes in order to predict the risk of kidney disease, he explained.

U of T “is renowned for its research,” said Julie Van, another graduate student in the kidney research lab. And with state-of-the-art facilities, “there’s no other place you’d want to do this work.”

Improvements by the numbers:

Source: University of Toronto


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