The Gilgan Centre: A buzzing hive of collaborative research

After opening its doors in late 2013, the Gilgan Centre in downtown Toronto has drawn 11 new scientists and 800 new researchers and graduate students from more than 44 different countries, including Dr. Monica Justice, Senior Scientist and Head of the Genetics & Genome Biology program at SickKids.

In September, 2013, SickKids Hospital opened its new research facility, the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning, which stands 21-stories tall in the heart of downtown Toronto. It was designed to be a hive for learning and research development, with the aim of attracting scientists, researchers, and trainees from around the world. Now, a year and a half later, the Gilgan Centre has recruited an impressive crew of international health leaders. Catalyst looks at the influential research of one such leader, Dr. Monica Justice, and how the building itself has inspired her innovative work by fostering collaboration.

Meet Dr. Monica Justice: leading international research in genetics

Dr. Monica Justice is a Senior Scientist and Head of the Genetics & Genome Biology program at SickKids, and she brings significant experience to the role. She recently moved to SickKids from Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, where she was a Professor in the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics and Director of the Mouse Embryonic Stem Cell Core and the BaSH Consortium for the Production and Broad-based Phenotyping of Knockout Mice. Prior to her work at Baylor, Dr. Justice spent some time as a postdoctoral fellow in the Mammalian Genetics Laboratory at the National Cancer Institute in Washington, D.C., after receiving her PhD from Kansas State University in mouse developmental genetics.

Dr. Monica Justice, Senior Scientist and Head of the Genetics & Genome Biology program at SickKids

Dr. Monica Justice, Senior Scientist and Head of the Genetics & Genome Biology program at SickKids.

Dr. Justice is internationally recognized as a pioneer in the field of mouse mutagenesis. Her research exploits the similarities between mouse and human genes and chromosome regions to develop an understanding of the basis for human diseases. The aim of Dr. Justice’ overall research is to ameliorate disease states in humans by merging mouse modelling with clinical genetics—a method that can be applied to a variety of health issues.

Dr. Justice’ mouse modelling method has gained traction on an international scale, and has had a significant impact on genetic research in diverse areas including cancer, reproduction, neurobiology, obesity, and blood, heart, and bone development.

Now at the Gilgan Centre, Dr. Justice has been primarily focused on a genetic suppressor screen in a mouse model for Rett Syndrome (RTT) to identify pharmacologically targetable pathways for disease suppression. Rett syndrome is a devastating neurodegenerative disease that affects children and currently has no cure. For SickKids patients and children around the world suffering from Rett Syndrome, Dr. Justice’ research could lead to a breakthrough treatment that gets to the genetic root of the disease.

At the Gilgan Centre, collaboration counts

Dr. Justice was sought after by international labs, so what drew her to the Gilgan Centre? “To me, the Gilgan Centre is a model for how research should be carried out,” she says. “The type of research, the design of the building and its place within the SickKids community is important not only for the type of research I do, but because this type of infrastructure fosters endless collaboration.”

And she’s right. The architects of the Gilgan Centre had collaboration in mind when they put the designs together. Before the centre was built, the SickKids research staff was scattered across the city in six different buildings. The Gilgan Centre has united them under one roof, in what is believed to be the largest child health research tower in the world.

Home to unique features such as a 250-seat auditorium, open areas and gathering spots, and a tele-education room, the 750,000 square-foot facility was built to be a hive of collaboration.

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Collaborative space at the Gilgan Centre. Photography courtesy of SickKids.

By building a space that’s explicitly and unapologetically dedicated to even the most specialized research and learning needs, SickKids has sent the message to international health research leaders that it is open to new and innovative avenues of discovery. And it’s no surprise those health leaders have responded by joining the Gilgan Centre team.

Dr. Justice’ lab is funded by grants from the Rett Syndrome Research Trust and the National Institutes of Health. This April, she became a CIHR-funded Canada Research Chair in Mammalian Molecular Genetics. For more information on the Gilgan Centre or Dr. Justice, visit www.sickkids.ca.