U of T receives $10 million from Ontario government for modernization of high containment facility
A smiling woman with a grey sweater and a smiling man wearing a toque and blue coat

(Photo credit: Julia Soudat)

March 18, 2024

By Betty Zou

Canada’s ability to respond rapidly to emerging infectious diseases is taking a step forward with a $9.9-million investment from the Ontario government to support critical research infrastructure updates to the Toronto High Containment Facility (THCF), which houses the largest containment level 3 lab in the province.

The facility is specially equipped to allow researchers to study high-risk pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2, HIV, tuberculosis and mpox, in a safe and secure way. Research undertaken at the current facility has advanced our understanding of infectious diseases and strengthened our ability to respond to emerging health threats.  

“The THCF strengthens Ontario’s position as a prime location for globally leading companies and top talent to discover and commercialize cutting-edge technologies, while improving our preparedness for future health challenges,” says Leah Cowen, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives. “The updated facility will enhance Canada’s health infrastructure and health security, and ensure that Canadian researchers are trained and ready to respond to emerging infectious diseases.”

The provincial funding builds on a previous $35-million investment from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to support efforts to revitalize and expand the THCF, and to transform it into the largest academic high-containment research centre in Canada. The renewal of the 20-year-old facility will provide increased capacity to use state-of-the-art approaches supporting academic research projects as well as collaborative industry-led efforts to develop new vaccines and therapeutics for Canadians. The new provincial investment will also allow the facility to meet the growing demand from industry and public sector partners while maintaining ongoing research projects and an agile responsiveness to future outbreaks.

“The new THCF will allow our researchers to work on the most urgent infectious disease threats, provide greater opportunities to engage with government agencies and industry partners, and allow us to provide unique training opportunities for the next generation of infectious disease leaders, building a strong foundation for Canada’s response to future outbreaks,” says Scott Gray-Owen, academic director of the THCF and a professor of molecular genetics in U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

The provincial support is part of a suite of investments through the Ontario Research Fund and the Early Researcher Awards that also include support for quantum and artificial intelligence projects at the University of Toronto. Support has also been extended to advance an infrastructure renewal of the province’s Advanced Research Computing (ARC) systems, including the University of Toronto’s Niagara ARC supercomputer, used by researchers across the country.

As the only high containment facility of its kind in the Greater Toronto Area, the THCF is a unique asset to the life sciences ecosystem in the region, already home to 55 per cent of Canada’s pharmaceutical companies. The modernized facility will be able to support greater engagement with industry partners to advance made-in-Ontario therapeutics like the experimental drug paridiprubart from Markham-based Edesa Biotech, which is currently being tested in a Phase 3 clinical trial to treat acute respiratory distress syndrome, a common complication from COVID-19 or influenza infections.

In addition to industry partners, the THCF has been used by federal and provincial agencies like the Public Health Agency of Canada, Bank of Canada, Rogers Hixon Ontario Human Milk Bank and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

The THCF renewal will also be undertaken in collaboration with U of T’s hospital partners – The Hospital for Sick Children, Sinai Health, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Unity Health Toronto and University Health Network. Construction of the facility has begun but the university is seeking additional funding to complete the project.

Based at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, the THCF is the cornerstone of the Emerging and Pandemic Infections Consortium, a U of T institutional strategic initiative that brings together the university and Toronto Academic Health Science Network (TAHSN) hospital partners to drive innovative approaches to infectious diseases and prepare for future pandemics. It is also a key infrastructure resource for the Canadian Hub for Health Intelligence and Innovation in Infectious Diseases (HI3) which was established through the Canada Biomedical Research Fund. The hub brings together over 90 partners across sectors to bolster Canada’s biomanufacturing capacity to ensure a fast and coordinated response to future pandemics and infectious threats.

The revitalized THCF will also have the capacity to train more than 100 new highly qualified professionals over a 5-year period with industry-relevant skills, including good manufacturing practices and vaccine and therapeutics development.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the THCF was the first lab in Canada, and one of the first in the world, to isolate the new coronavirus in March 2020. The facility and its highly trained staff played a key role in accelerating research breakthroughs that guided the pandemic response including, for example, methods to allow safe reuse of personal protective equipment in health care settings and to ensure safe human milk banking for premature infants.

The THCF was also a core element of EPIC’s mpox rapid research response, housing a biobank of samples from patients with mpox which are being used by researchers to better understand the dynamics of viral shedding and other important questions about the disease.

In addition to a larger physical space, the updated facility will include a state-of-the-art high containment insectary to enable research on mosquito-borne viruses like Chikungunya, dengue, Zika and yellow fever. With its modular design and enhanced safety features, the new facility will also be better positioned to respond to emerging pathogens like highly pathogenic avian influenza.