On Campus

New $400-million research tower unveiled in Toronto

SickKids to bring 2,000-plus scientists under one roof

SickKids' Mary Jo Haddad (left) and Dr. Janet Rossant (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – Light pours in from gracefully curving windows that soar three storeys above the floor, illuminating clusters of comfy couches in a space that soon will be humming with the voices of scientists. It’s a place to chat over coffee, trade details of their latest research and hopefully light the spark of medical discovery.

The lofty space is part of one of several “neighbourhoods” in Sick Kids’ new research tower in downtown Toronto, which will bring together the venerable hospitals’ 2,000-plus scientists under one roof after decades of being scattered in five different locations.

More than 10 years in the planning and construction, the 21-storey Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning officially opens Sept. 17, a mere few minutes walk from the hospital renowned for the invention of Pablum and the discovery of the genes behind Duchenne muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis.

For those intimately involved with its creation, the $400-million tower is much more than just a building — it’s intended to be an incubator of innovative ideas, says the hospital’s head of research, Dr. Janet Rossant.

“In order to really enhance interactions, we wanted to have ways of people interacting across the building,” Rossant explains during a recent tour of the building, which is still in the final phases of completion.

“It’s a tall tower. If you close off the floors, you know the people on your floor, you don’t know anyone else.”

To avoid that sense of people working in isolated silos, the architects incorporated neighbourhood gathering spots, accessible by researchers from several floors that allow them to meet and mingle.

“They have built these mini atria in which people can come out of the lab, come into this space, sit down, have a coffee, talk to friends, have a small meeting,” she says, noting that they’re also equipped with video screens on which scientists can illustrate their research.

“This is not just the most beautiful part of the building,” Rossant says, sweeping her arm around the space, “but it really exemplifies what we wanted to achieve in the building.”

Indeed, the “water-cooler” effect that arises from scientists getting more face time with each other has a payoff of higher-quality research, a 2012 Harvard University study confirmed.

“In the world of science, many lay people have this concept of the mad scientist in the lab and they’re so focused and they don’t talk to anyone and they keep everything close to their chest,” says Mary Jo Haddad, Sick Kids’ president and CEO.

“That’s not how research works here.”

The building will house state-of-the-art research labs for seven broad disciplines — among them genetics/genome biology and neurosciences/mental health — on groups of adjacent floors that will promote easy interaction.

“We want some fuzzy around the edges, so now we mix some of the epidemiologists up with the people working on, particularly, disease,” says Rossant, an internationally recognized stem cell biologist. “We mix some of the genetics people with the neuroscience people.”

That will be a boon for scientists like Freda Miller and Donald Mabbott, whose specialties couldn’t be more different, but whose research goals intersect in surprising ways.

Mabbott, a neuropsychologist, works in the hospital with children who have suffered neurological damage as a result of treatment for brain tumours; Miller, several blocks away at the MaRS Centre for scientific innovation, is a molecular developmental neurobiologist who works with stem cells.

“You live in a bit of silos right now in terms of research,” says Mabbott, who developed an exercise program for kids who survived having a brain tumour but were left with learning and other cognitive deficits from toxic rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

Studies in older people and mice have shown that cardiovascular exercise can spur the growth of new neurons and other brain tissue that arise from stem cells.

When he and Miller found themselves both speaking at an event outside the hospital — Miller about how the diabetes drug metformin can activate stem cells in the brain — they talked about getting together to discuss a possible collaboration.

“From that initial conversation, we met often at the Tim Hortons in the MaRS building,” a 10- to 15-minute walk from the hospital, says Mabbott.

What resulted was the formulation of a research project that will combine his exercise program and Miller’s metformin-driven stem cell proliferation to see if the combination can help improve brain function in children treated for brain tumours.

Being housed together in the tower will facilitate that work by allowing scientists on the team to “get up and have unscheduled meetings,” says Mabbott, whose office and lab will be on the eighth floor, one up from cognitive neurobiologist Paul Frankland, another of the collaborators on the project.

“Freda’s lab is an elevator ride away … I would say that just given the pace of science, given the busy-ness, that 10, 15 minutes’ walk versus a two-minute elevator ride breaks down barriers in communication.”

Miller agrees, saying proximity won’t just be good for senior scientists, but also for the graduate students and post-doctoral fellows working in the principal investigators’ labs, who have had little opportunity to connect.

“And what we’re hoping … is that by having everyone in the same building and places you can sit and talk all over the place that it won’t just be us talking any more; it will be our laboratory members,” says Miller, who will be among the cancer and stem cell biology folks on the 15th to 18th floors.

“They really are our peers in training and they have a lot of amazing ideas and they cook up a lot of amazing projects. And so that’s one of the big hopes, that that kind of intellectual synergy will be facilitated by everyone being together.”

Rossant observes that collaborative research — both in-house and as part of international research partnerships — not only drives discovery, it also fulfils the hospital’s vision of “Healthier children. A better world.”

“When I came here eight years ago, I think Sick Kids was already ahead of the curve in this concept that health research in particular is not just about fundamental research on its own in isolation,” says Rossant.

“We do it, research in the hospital, because we want to implement change. We want to see change that impacts on health.”

—Sheryl Ubelacker

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