The Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development
Two babies are born in the same neighbourhood, both with genetic predispositions to develop depression in their 20s, obesity in their 30s and diabetes in their 50s.
One child will grow up to have all these conditions, while the other will develop none of them.
It’s the same story with other non-communicable conditions, including learning disabilities, anxiety disorders, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Why does this happen, what environmental influences may be interacting with those genes, and how can we intervene to help more children—in fact, all children—stay on the path toward optimal health and lifelong well-being?
As researchers around the world pursue these questions, the University of Toronto is creating a unique new research and outreach institute that could revolutionize our understanding of these issues. The Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development is an academic umbrella that links researchers across multiple disciplines.
A virtual construct whose scope is not restricted by the size of a building, the Fraser Mustard Institute immediately attracted interest from 75 researchers and expects to keep growing.
“It’s bigger, wider and more comprehensive than anything we’ve ever done,” says Executive Director Stephen Lye, a U of T Professor in the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Physiology, and the Associate Director of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute (SLRI) at Mount Sinai Hospital.
While many conditions don’t manifest themselves until adulthood, researchers at the Fraser Mustard Institute will be examining what occurs years or even decades earlier.
“Rather than trying to treat the symptoms, we’re better off trying to prevent them in the first place, and we have a very real prospect of doing that in the first 2,000 days of life,” says Lye.
He emphasizes that what happens during that crucial time—from conception to around age five—can set a child on trajectories that will impact his or her entire life.
Those far-reaching effects encompass not only physical and mental health but also the ability to learn and the capacity to form positive social interactions. Traditionally, research has been divided into discrete “silos” of health, education and social sciences. But the Fraser Mustard Institute removes those barriers.
“Our belief is that a developing individual doesn’t separate his or her health, learning part or social functions,” says Lye, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Improvement in Health and Function. “Studying these aspects together will allow innovations to emerge rapidly.”
While attracting researchers from various areas of human development, the initiative has also recently attracted the attention of an international superstar whose field isn’t science at all, but professional sport.
National Hockey League legend Mats Sundin (centre, below) former captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, feels so passionately about the issues that he has established fellowships for an elite exchange program for two scientists in developmental biology between U of T and Karolinska Institutet in his home country of Sweden. Beginning in September, one candidate from each university will be chosen to do a year of postdoctoral research at the other’s institution.
“I’m really excited about being able to get involved and give back to two of the best research centres in the world,” says Sundin.
The early years have long been an area of interest for Sundin, son of a pediatric nurse.
“Over my years in Toronto I had a big involvement in different charities, but what kept me coming back was children,” he says.
He often visited young patients in hospital, and he started Captain’s Corner, where kids dealing with life challenges had special box seats to watch hockey games in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
“When I was part of a seminar on sports and health at Karolinska, I started thinking about ways I could support research that could help children in the early stages of lif," says Sundin, who now lives in Sweden. "It was important for me to give back in Sweden, but maybe even more important in Toronto, where I spent most of my career.
"Toronto really feels like my home.”
He was encouraged to learn that U of T and Karolinska already had academic partnerships, so his involvement was an easy fit.
There are surprising parallels between elite scientists and elite athletes, says Sundin, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November, and had his number 13 jersey honoured in a Toronto ceremony in February.
He says, “When you’re a professional athlete you’re always trying to be on the edge, at the forefront, collaborating with your teammates but having that competitive drive to be the best.”
Sundin now has a new reason for his interest in the well-being of children: his wife Josephine gave birth to their first child, a baby girl, in August.
Sundin has personally donated more than $300,000 for the fellowships, matched by U of T and Karolinska, with another $50,000 from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. But Sundin’s involvement goes far beyond money, says Lye, who will oversee the fellowships from the U of T side. Sundin has made several personal appearances (when he announced the fellowships earlier this year he proudly brought his entire family to U of T, including his parents and siblings), he is helping to fundraise, and he inspires young people to think about careers in science and research.
“Professional hockey is all about excellence and attracting the best talent from around the world, and so is our institute," says Lye. "Having Mats Sundin involved offers us a great opportunity to get our message out.”
Indeed, Sundin’s announcement generated widespread media attention, which is shining a spotlight on various research initiatives in U of T Medicine that are having an international impact.