Oct 24, 2023

Donnelly Centre to House New Self-Driving Lab to Innovate Next-Generation Human Tissue Models

Artificial Intelligence, Bioengineering, Drug Discovery
Headshots of Milica Radisic and Vuk Stambolic
Professors Milica Radisic and Vuk Stambolic
By Anika Hazra

The Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research is home to a new self-driving lab (SDL), borne out of a $200 million grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund to the Acceleration Consortium. The Acceleration Consortium is a global initiative, based at the University of Toronto, for speeding up the discovery of materials and molecules needed for a sustainable future.

The Self-Driving Laboratory for Human Organ Mimicry is being led by Milica Radisic, Canada Research Chair in Organ-on-a-Chip Engineering and professor of biomedical engineering, and Vuk Stambolic, senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and professor of medical biophysics.

“The lab will innovate new complex cellular models of human tissues, such as from the heart, liver, kidney and brain, through stem-cell-derived organoids and organ-on-a-chip technologies,” said Radisic. “In partnership with the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, the lab will also enable automation of patient-derived tumour organoid cultures to accelerate the discovery of new cancer treatments.”

Two circles side-by-side with thick perimeters containing shapes dyed various colours Nikolina Radulovich & Laura Tamblyn
Tumour organoids stained with fluorescent dyes

These advanced technologies will provide a unique opportunity for Donnelly Centre researchers and the broader scientific community to access new models of health and disease for discovery and to test the efficacy and toxicity of new drugs and materials. The Human Organ Mimicry SDL is one of six self-driving labs launched by the Acceleration Consortium at U of T to drive research across a range of fields, including materials, drug formulation, drug discovery and sustainable energy.

The concept of a self-driving lab is that, once the lab is set up, it will be able to run with robots performing 90 per cent of the manual work. These labs have not replaced human researchers, however; scientists have simply been relieved of the tedious trial and error of conventional discovery to focus on higher-level analysis.

“The Self-Driving Lab for Human Organ Mimicry will enable other self-driving labs to develop new materials and drugs by rapidly determining their efficacy, as well as their potential toxic effects and other impacts on human tissues,” said Stambolic. “While animal testing is typically the go-to method to assess the safety of new molecules made for humans, this lab will replace trials involving animals with organoids and organs-on-chips. This will allow us to advance to human clinical trials much more quickly.”

Left hand wearing blue lab glove holding a black tray with around 100 square-shaped cells; a few of the cells are orange while the rest are grey Rick Lu
Organ-on-a-chip well plate

“The goal of our self-driving labs is to use AI to move the discovery process forward at the necessary pace to tackle global issues,” said Alán Aspuru-Guzik, director of the Acceleration Consortium and professor of chemistry and computer science. “The Human Organ Mimicry SDL, as well as other self-driving labs launched through the Acceleration Consortium, will establish U of T and our extended research community as a global leader in AI for science.”

The new self-driving lab is located in the Donnelly Centre — an international hub for cross-disciplinary research in medicine and health. This is the ideal environment for a self-driving lab, as the Donnelly Centre has become a hotspot for technological innovation, offering resources to the wider research community to meet its ever-growing needs.

“The Donnelly Centre is a thriving research community because it was founded on the principle of interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Stephane Angers, director of the Donnelly Centre and professor of biochemistry and pharmaceutical sciences. “Our research strengths in computational biology, functional genomics and stem cell biology will catalyze the development and success of the Self-Driving Lab for Human Organ Mimicry.”

Green fluorescent dots in a cluster on top of a rectangular black metal platform Karl Wagner
Vascularized cardiac tissue-on-a-chip with endothelial cells highlighted by green fluorescence

The launch of the new lab will also expand the Donnelly Centre’s team of experts with the hiring of five new staff. These staff members, joining the Donnelly Centre this Fall, will be tasked with making the self-driving lab operational and fully automated. The lab is expected to be operational by the end of the year.

“The Donnelly Centre is one of the foremost research institutes in the world, with outstanding strength in genomics, model organisms, organoids, computational biology and many other areas,” said Justin Nodwell, Vice Dean of Research & Health Science Education at Temerty Faculty of Medicine. “I’m delighted to hear about the addition of the Acceleration Consortium’s artificial intelligence-powered self-driving lab to the Centre’s existing technical base. It will facilitate new lines of research by some of the best minds in the country.”