A perspective of the changes that have shaped immunology and the Department over the last 30 years

As we approach nearly three decades of research at the Department of Immunology, we look back at some of the major changes which have shaped research and graduate life at the University of Toronto. In this article, we asked some faculty members who have seen the Department and field of immunology evolve (Drs. Richard Miller, Michael Julius, Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker, Tania Watts, and Eleanor Fish) to take a retrospective look at the discipline of immunology, the Department, student-life, and the research landscape.

Immunology Research as a New Frontier

Dr. Richard Miller
Dr. Richard Miller

The 1960s and early 1970s saw the rapid expansion of immunology research and the inception of fundamental ideas such as cellular versus humoral immunity, clonal selection, and differences between T and B cells. At this time, faculty from across the biological sciences were drawn to immunology research and the field grew. As Dr. Julius noted, “the immune system provides an extraordinarily fertile arena of study that offers major insights into fundamental biological questions”.

The last three decades have seen the advance of knowledge and techniques that have driven the field onwards at an increasingly rapid pace. Some major discoveries that have shaped immunology research in the last 30 years include the cloning of the T cell receptor(1984), the discovery of Toll-like receptors(1985), and the identification of Foxp3+ regulatory T cells (2001). These major landmarks in immunology have been coupled with improved experimental techniques. DNA cloning and sequencing, PCR, transgenic and gene knockout mice, siRNA, monoclonal antibodies, and flow cytometry have all been instrumental in advancing the field. “The ability to analyze mice lacking one gene was a huge advance,” writes Dr. Watts as she recalls the use of the CD28 knockout mouse created by Dr. Tak Mak’s group in 1993 to define the molecular mechanism of co-stimulation. Nature Immunology, which was only recently founded in 2001, remains one of the most cited journals across all fields. Clearly, immunology research is on the rise and will continue to expand with improved techniques.

Although, the faculty members we surveyed did not all agree on the next great advance in immunology research, there were some common predicted themes such as targeted immunotherapies and the increasing application of large-scale genomic and proteomic approaches. Developments in inexpensive and high-throughput sequencing, such as pyrosequencing and Ion Torrent sequencing, and next generation, mass spectrometer-based flow cytometry (CyTOF), have already begun to change the face of biomedical research and will continue to be a driving force in immunology.

The Department of Immunology Finds a Home

From a sole founding member located at the Ontario Cancer Institute, the Department of Immunology has spread across 7 research institutes and 28 years later has 68 active professors with slightly over 100 graduate students. Over time, the Department has expanded across research institutes but the greatest change has been the increase in faculty researchers located in the Medical Sciences Building (MSB). In recent years, immunology research and non-research members at MSB have gained critical mass, and the building now serves as a focal point for administration and research in the Department.

The composition of departmental researchers has also changed along with the expanding field. Research topics within the Department have broadened to include innate immunity, autoimmunity, and clinical studies, in addition to the cellular and molecular aspects of the adaptive immune response. Amongst the contacted professors, there was a general consensus that as long as funding was available, the Department would continue to expand.

Life Improves as Students Diversify

When I spoke with Dr. Richard Miller, an emeritus professor and founding chair of our department, he commented that the founding vision for the department was to create a “centre of excellence” with the intention of training highly qualified academic researchers. At its inception, student education and training was a major priority and student seminars were immediately implemented as a mandatory component to graduation. These seminars became a forum for open discussion and Dr. Miller regrets that over time these presentations have lost a certain critical edge. The training certainly proved to be successful and in a recent survey of Department of Immunology graduates from 1985 to 2005, 45% were continuing careers in academia with over 30% finding faculty positions.

“The cost of doing research and the expectations for what you get done also went up…[and] it never gets easier” -Tania Watts

Student numbers have continued to rise steadily since the Department was formed. As enrollment increased, so did the sense of community and with it student life improved. But the attitudes of students have also shifted significantly. Dr. Zúñiga-Pflücker notes that, “students are more aware of the diversity of options and…[are] less insular than 25 years ago”.

Changing labour market conditions are continually demanding that students have transferrable skills outside traditional academic research roles. Trained as critical thinkers and problem solvers, more of us are trying to find work outside research. In her responses, Dr. Watts acknowledged that the greatest challenge facing the Department is to prepare students for this reality.

A Rocky Funding Landscape

There have been large changes in the funding landscape over the course of the last 28 years. However, many investigators, including Dr. Miller, would point out that “there has always been a lot of difficulty obtaining and maintaining government funding.”

Asked about funding, Dr. Zúñiga-Pflücker replied that “there are cycles of low funding rates and times with relatively higher levels … [which] reflects the challenges faced by government and their need to balance their budgets”. The recession of the mid 90’s, the information boom that followed, and the recent financial crash have all influenced the availability of federal funding for biomedical research. However, looking at the total federal dollars spent on higher education centers (Box 1), the funding for natural sciences and engineering has increased almost exponentially since 1984. CIHR, for instance, was founded in April 2000 and only added to the dramatic increase in federal research funding. So, if there are more total dollars available, why is it so difficult to obtain federal funds?

“The cost of doing research and the expectations for what you get done also went up…[and] it never gets easier,” comments Dr. Watts. The sharp increase in the number of scientists, labs, and larger grants going to fewer investigators makes obtaining federal funding extremely competitive. The funds are accessible but “sometimes you have to adapt your research to suit the funding available at the time,” notes Dr. Watts, who remains optimistic.
Gross domestic expenditures on research and development at higher education sectors (natural sciences and engineering). Data taken from Statistics Canada Table 358-0001.Gross domestic expenditures on research and development at higher education sectors (natural sciences and engineering). Data taken from Statistics Canada Table 358-0001.

There has been one positive addition to this equation in the last three decades – an increase in private non-profit funding from charitable organizations and donors (Box 1). Since the Department was founded, private non-profit funding in Canada has increased 11 fold to 850 million dollars, representing almost 10% of total funds to higher education centers. In comparison, federal funding has increased 5.5 fold in the same period. In the years to come, investment from private organizations and non-profit charities will likely outpace government funding on research and development. As Dr. Julius remarked, “NGOs (non-government organizations) in aggregate double the federal agency investment in discovery research, [and] they remain an essential element of our funding landscape.”

The Challenges Ahead

It is difficult to summarize the contribution of the department to the field of immunology. The Thompson Reuters rankings have consistently placed the University of Toronto at the top of Canadian universities in research performance. However, on the international stage, we sit well below top-tier American schools like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. The next three decades of research at the University of Toronto will face the challenge of recruiting the most talented post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and investigators with greater emphasis placed on bridging the gap from bench to clinic.


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Yuriy Baglaenko

Founding Editor
Yuriy is a 4th year PhD student studying the suppression of autoimmunity at the University of Toronto. He is an avid musician with an at-home amateur recording studio and a mediocre intramural volleyball player.
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