The Government of Canada awards McGill the largest research grant in the University’s history to create an international hub for “next generation” medicines

The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, announced $1.4 billion in support of 11 large-scale research initiatives through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) today at Concordia University in Montreal. The CFREF grants are awarded through a highly competitive process to the top programs in their fields.

McGill is the recipient of a landmark $165 million CFREF grant to launch DNA to RNA: An Inclusive Canadian Approach to Genomic-based RNA Therapeutics (D2R), a first-of-its-kind global research effort specializing in the development and delivery of more inclusive genomic-based RNA therapeutics. D2R will receive significant support from more than 50 partners, including many from academia and industry, who have all pledged to invest in the research, which brings the total amount invested in D2R to $353 million.

Canadian academic partnering institutions include the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia (UBC), McMaster University and l’Université de Sherbrooke.

“McGill’s commitments to RNA and genomics sciences over several decades have built a critical mass of researchers and exceptional facilities to lead the RNA therapeutics revolution,” says Martha Crago, Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation. “This significant research investment will open a new frontier in the treatment of diseases and disorders.”

“McGill is grateful to the Government of Canada and an impressive group of global partners for their support of this world-leading, inclusive program of research excellence and innovation,” says Deep Saini, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill.

The RNA Revolution

The remarkable and rapid success of mRNA vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 demonstrated the power of combining genomics with RNA technology. RNA therapeutics can be developed and produced much more quickly than traditional small molecule drugs, which can take years to discover and cost billions to produce.

D2R-led research has the potential to provide breakthrough treatments for a wide spectrum of diseases, such as those caused by emerging viruses that threaten our society with pandemics, rare genetic disorders that are incurable or prohibitively expensive to treat, and cancer, which is the number one cause of death in Canada.

“To treat complex conditions and their associated catastrophic health and economic consequences more effectively, we need to work across sectors and with an engaged group of partners,” says Mark Lathrop, Scientific Director of the McGill Genome Centre, and the Scientific Director of D2R. “D2R is creating a nexus for genomics and RNA research and demonstrating leadership in the implementation of inclusive social and regulatory policies to address global health needs.”

An Inclusive Approach

The team of seventy researchers from five academic institutions, will work collaboratively with Canada’s Indigenous and immigrant populations, including with the partnering Network Environments for Indigenous Health Research (NEIHR), to ensure the promise of RNA therapeutics is made widely available in a manner that is inclusive and beneficial to all Canadians.

Training of students and postdocs and support for early career researchers are core priorities of D2R, as is interdisciplinary work among researchers in AI, data science and RNA therapeutics, RNA biology, social sciences, law, ethics, and Indigenous heath.

“The D2R Initiative will develop safe and effective therapies, focus on creating more inclusive genomic datasets, and work to break down historical barriers to medicines and care through close partnership with equity-deserving communities,” says Amélie Quesnel-Vallée, Canada Research Chair in Policies and Health Inequalities, Inaugural Chair of the Department of Equity, Ethics and Policy at McGill, and D2R’s Co-Scientific Director.

Excellence Spanning Decades and Institutions

The D2R Initiative builds on McGill’s 50-year history in RNA discovery and innovation. This includes researchers such as Prof. Nahum Sonenberg who in 1976 first identified the cap-binding protein eIF4E, a key component in RNA’s ability to regulate the replication of cells. Also, a member of the D2R team is University of British Columbia’s Dr. Pieter Cullis, whose work in lipid nanoparticles was an essential precursor to the later development of mRNA vaccines.

Several Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies are engaged with D2R. Eight additional academic partners, including five international partners, have also joined forces on this initiative.

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