Results of the 2023 New Connections Grants Competition
The Emerging and Pandemic Infections Consortium (EPIC) is an integrated network for researchers, trainees and partners working to confront infectious disease challenges. We unite members across the University of Toronto and its hospital partners to accelerate cross-disciplinary work in the understanding and development of new countermeasures against pathogens. A key pillar of EPIC’s work is training the next generation of infectious disease research leaders that will help stop future pandemics and reduce the societal burdens of infectious disease.
EPIC New Connections Grants support innovative projects that are fostered through cross-disciplinary collaboration across at least two research groups. Successful proposals will feature joint lead investigators from different university divisions and/or departments and/or EPIC partner institutions coming together for their first significant research collaboration. The joint investigators will tackle an infectious disease research question by applying innovative methodologies that capitalize on their different areas of expertise for impactful outcomes.
We are pleased to share the results of our inaugural New Connections Grants competition that we launched in March 2023.
Meet our 2023 New Connections Grants recipients
Team project #1: Rapid CRISPR-diagnostic assay for Candida auris identification and antifungal resistance prediction
Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering
Sunnybrook Research Institute
Team project #2: Creating novel alveoli-on-a-chip from human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) to model respiratory RSV disease pathogenesis and therapy discovery
Hospital for Sick Children
Hospital for Sick Children
Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering
Weckman/Kozak: Rapid CRISPR-diagnostic assay for Candida auris identification and antifungal resistance prediction
In the face of the rapidly increasing global threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), we urgently need new technologies to improve AMR surveillance, diagnosis of infections, management of outbreaks, and antimicrobial stewardship. Antifungal resistant Candida species, like Candida auris, are increasingly included on urgent AMR threat lists because they can be difficult to treat and can cause deadly hospital outbreaks. A current challenge in tackling AMR is that antimicrobial susceptibility testing may only be performed in centralized reference laboratories, incurring delays in information critical for matching patients to best treatments.
CRISPR-based diagnostics enable high sensitivity and specificity detection of genetic biomarkers. This project leverages clinical and engineering expertise to develop rapid CRISPR diagnostic assays to detect C. auris, other Candida, and key genetic mutations known to facilitate antifungal resistance. The assay will be optimized for use in a clinical microbiology laboratory and validated with a variety of clinical samples, drawing on collaborations across the Toronto healthcare system. It will also demonstrate the use of the assay for rapid assessment of environmental surveillance samples to help guide decision making by infection control teams in hospitals. This data unlocks the potential to implement the assay as a diagnostic and surveillance test at Shared Hospital Laboratory as well as laying the groundwork for future research into broader implementation of AMR and infectious disease diagnostics. It will also equip students with multidisciplinary research, problem solving, and communication skills, training them to be our future leaders and innovators in the Canadian and global fight against AMR.
Wong/Moraes/Young: Developing an alveoli-on-a-chip from iPSCs to model RSV pathogenesis and accelerate drug discovery
Serious respiratory viral infections including SARS-CoV-2, RSV and influenza viruses can result in acute respiratory disease syndrome (ARDS), a condition caused by uncontrolled recruitment of immune cells that release toxic mediators and proteins that ultimately damages the lungs, specifically the alveolar epithelium, the region of the lung involved in gas exchange. Drug development has traditionally relied on the use of transformed cell lines that do not represent the cells found in the lungs, and animal models that often do not translate to human outcomes, especially when infections and disease manifestations in humans are mirrored in animals. We propose to develop a novel biomimetic human lung tissue that better models the native tissue that will allow us to study host-pathogen interactions for viruses like RSV. To do this, we will leverage our existing organ-on-a-chip platform called E-FLOAT to create an alveolus-on-a-chip model from human induced pluripotent stem cells, a renewable cell source with the capability of generating any cell type in the lungs, including the cells that make up the alveolar epithelium. Our goal is to create a tissue model that is critically needed to study respiratory infections and enable rapid development of potential therapeutics for pandemic level viruses.