the canada issue

The Donnelly CCBR:
How a massive lab without walls is re-inventing medical research

How a massive lab without walls is re-inventing medical research
by Paul Fraumeni

Chris Yip and James Friese copy

When the concept for Edge Magazine got the green light in April 1999, everyone agreed the first cover story could only be the Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research (CCBR) – even though it too was still at the idea stage.

But what an idea: get to the roots of the diseases that confound us – cancer and diabetes, for example – by rethinking the science of life itself.

And that called for a research facility that was decidedly different from the norm.

The visionaries behind the CCBR were U of T research leaders Professor James Friesen, a geneticist and then-Chair of the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research, and Professor Cecil Yip, a biochemist and Vice-Dean, Research in the Faculty of Medicine.

“We designed an environment with no walls, literally and figuratively,” says Friesen. “We wanted the scientists to have every opportunity to interact.”

Scientists would come from many disciplines: biology, computer science, pharmacy, chemistry, physics, botany, zoology, and engineering, as well as from U of T’s partner hospitals. “The greater the diversity of people and organizations involved, the greater the chances for us to develop research that can truly break new ground,” Yip said in that inaugural issue of Edge.

The vision became reality on Nov. 5, 2005. The gleaming structure on the St. George campus was named for Canadian philanthropist Terrence Donnelly, whose generous donation was supported by funding from the Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario.

Today, under the direction of Professor Brenda Andrews, the DCCBR houses 35 faculty members and more than 500 research staff and trainees. Cecil Yip died in 2007, but his son Chris carries on his vision as a U of T professor in chemical engineering and applied chemistry, director of the Institute of Biomaterials and Bioengineering and a DCCBR principal investigator.

“The DCCBR has created opportunities for collaboration that have enabled our scientists and students to thrive,” says Chris Yip. Indeed, the barrier-free DCCBR has contributed to important progress in areas such as stem cell research, genetics and the regeneration of human tissue in the lab.

Friesen adds that the DCCBR “was meant to be the agent that keeps U of T at the forefront of the biomedical research sphere and a hub for collaboration with partner hospitals. It has done that in spades.” As an example, he cites the Medicine By Design project, led by Professor Peter Zandstra, which won a $114 million Government of Canada grant in 2015.

“No question about it,” says Friesen, with obvious pride, “there are projects and teams in this building that are absolutely world-beating.”