Message from the Director

"Monumental discovery requires the ability to explore in all directions: to be free of boundaries.  Intensive investigation of the brain will provide the answers that will end neurodegenerative diseases.  The Tanz Centre’s relentless approach to pursuing these discoveries will expose the mystery of these complex brain illnesses.”

- Prof. Peter St George-Hyslop


The Tanz Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases (Tanz CRND) was created in 1990 through the prescient efforts of a trilogy of institutions and individuals that included: i) the University of Toronto; ii) Mark Tanz, Lionel Schipper and colleagues; and iii) the Alzheimer Association of Ontario (ASO).

Over the next 25 years the Tanz CRND flourished through the ongoing support of successive presidents and deans of the University of Toronto; a growing list of philanthropists led by Mark Tanz and Lionel Schipper; the ASO and other disease-based lay foundations. The Tanz CRND grew from a small research unit housed in the Botany Building to become one of the world’s major centres for research on these disorders.

The Tanz CRND has made profound discoveries about the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative diseases. It transformed our understanding of these diseases, and provided invaluable targets for the development of novel candidate therapies and diagnostics, several of which have already been or will be investigated in clinical trials. The Tanz CRND also made critical discoveries about fundamental neurobiology, including the discovery of a novel type of enzyme (presenilin complex) that cleaves membrane proteins, and is essential for all forms of animal life. The current faculty comprises 10 investigators drawn from fields as diverse as Biophysics, Molecular Genetics, Neurobiology, Proteomics, Model Organisms, Neuroimaging and Neuropathology. It has published over 1055 peer-reviewed manuscripts, and given over 1300 invited lectures at institutions around the world. This places the Tanz CRND amongst the leading institutions in the world in neurodegenerative diseases.

The importance of the discoveries at the Tanz CRND is reflected in the 76 national and international academic honours awarded to the faculty, and in the 23 academic honours and prizes awarded to trainees at the Tanz CRND (beyond stipendiary and travel awards).

A second critical mandate of the Tanz CRND has been to train the next generation of scientists and physicians. Over 272 postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduate students have trained at the Tanz CRND. Crucially, the vast majority of these graduates have remained in the field of neurodegeneration. Twenty-three (23) of the graduates now hold Professorial positions in prestigious institutions around the world (e.g. Columbia University in New York). Nine of the graduates hold senior scientific positions in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. Others have set up venture capital companies, have positions in science publication, or in national/international policy-setting bodies.

The Tanz CRND has been an important contributor to Continuing Medical Education for physicians of a variety of disciplines in Canada and around the world. Indeed, the internationally renowned Canadian Conference on Dementia (CCD) started in 1992 as a Tanz CRND initiative to educate family physicians and community specialists in Ontario about these diseases.

The Tanz CRND has its own rich internal lecture series. The flagship lecture is the Diane Charlwood Memorial lecture. Visiting Lectures by leading international scientists and physicians in the field of neurodegenerative diseases have included Dennis Selkoe, Virginia Lee, Don Price Stanley Prusiner (the 1997 Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology) and Christian Haass.

A key element in the success of the Tanz CRND has been its multidisciplinary collaborative approach. The investigators (and their students) are drawn from clinical medicine, molecular genetics, cell biology, molecular biology, biophysics, molecular neuropathology, neuroimaging and biochemistry. On average, each investigator has 26 ongoing substantive collaborations (5.4 ± 1.6 collaborations within the Tanz CRND; 8.8 ± 4.3 collaborations with investigators in other centres in Toronto; 3.3 ± 1.0 collaborations with other investigators elsewhere in Canada, and 8.5 ± 4.7 collaborations with investigators elsewhere in the world).

The work of the Tanz CRND has been significantly underpinned by the generosity of private individuals led by Mark Tanz and Lionel Schipper and by lay societies (e.g. the ASO).

Importantly, the Tanz CRND investigators have leveraged those gifts by successful competition for peer-reviewed grants from sources such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Ontario Research Fund, National Institutes of Health, and the Wellcome Trust. This has resulted in over $116 million in direct funding for basic research at the Tanz CRND. An equal or larger amount has been awarded for clinically-directed research that is administered through the University affiliated hospitals.

To facilitate translation of the Tanz CRND discoveries into clinically applicable products, the Tanz CRND faculty have collaborated extensively with biotechnology and pharmaceutical partners, and have co-founded at least one successful Ontario-based biotechnology company.

Cumulatively, it seems clear that the hope and the vision that the Founders had for the Tanz CRND has in considerable part been realised. The Tanz CRND is unquestionably one of the world-leading institutes for basic research on neurodegenerative diseases.

Looking forward, there are rich opportunities for the Tanz CRND to continue to contribute to a better understanding of these diseases; to the discovery of new molecular targets for more effective treatments and diagnostics; and to a world without these disorders.

Not unexpectedly, there are significant challenges that must be met if the Tanz CRND is to continue to successfully address its mission. These include ongoing recruitment and faculty renewal, ongoing acquisition of essential cutting-edge instruments to tackle new and difficult scientific questions. One of the most critical hurdles is the financial support of the Tanz CRND in a time when funding of basic research through traditional peer-reviewed grants is increasingly uncertain. The clever solution to this hurdle will likely depend upon ongoing philanthropy and partnerships with private sector partners. Robust evidence that these financial challenges can be successfully tackled is eloquently provided by the recent efforts to solve the need for a state-of-the-art facility for the Tanz CRND laboratories. The old Tanz Neuroscience Building was becoming increasingly unsuitable for delicate instruments. The solution, housing the Tanz CRND in the sixth floor of the Krembil Discovery Tower arose through a collaboration between the University of Toronto (led by Dean Catharine Whiteside) and the University Health Network (led by Robert Bell). This collaboration culminated in the construction of the state-of-the-art Krembil Discovery Tower on the campus of the Toronto Western Hospital. This project, which cost $174 million, arose from the concerted efforts of multiple donors including Mark Tanz, Lionel Schipper, the Krembil family and many others. The names of these important contributors to the fight against neurodegenerative disorders is prominently displayed at the entrance to the Tanz CRND's new research facilities in the Krembil Discovery Tower.

-- Peter St George-Hyslop

    Director, Tanz Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases