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Trevor Young, the dean of U of T’s faculty of medicine, inside the Cowen lab at MaRS, which investigates fungal diseases and treatments, July 26.Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

The University of Toronto is the second most prolific academic health sciences research institution in the world, according to a recent international ranking compiled by the scientific journal Nature.

The category was added this year to the Nature Index, which tracks research publishing, and tallied the contributions of institutions to 60 highly acclaimed medical journals. U of T’s ranking was second only to that of Harvard University, and superior to numerous other prestigious schools, such as Johns Hopkins University, Yale University and the University of Oxford.

“This is truly exciting, breathtaking news for us,” Trevor Young, the dean of U of T’s faculty of medicine, said in an interview.

Prof. Young, who is also the vice-provost in charge of the university’s relationship with its 14 affiliated hospitals and research centres, credited the collaboration between the different entities for the second-place ranking. He said innovative research, such as exploring the role of artificial intelligence in medicine, requires teamwork across multiple fields and their network allows that to happen.

Other notable work the university has done in the past year includes identifying a new target for fighting Parkinson’s disease, creating a novel therapy for recurrent glioblastoma that extends patients’ lives for up to several years, and developing a miniature robotic hand that can perform less invasive surgery in hard-to-reach areas of the brain.

“These are the kinds of discoveries that have a direct impact on people that might have diseases that are otherwise incurable. It’s all sort of focused on addressing fundamental issues and improving human lives,” said Leah Cowen, the university’s vice-president of research, innovation and strategic initiatives.

The ranking is especially impressive, she said, given the amount Canada spends on health care compared with the United States. For 2021, the per cent of GDP that went toward health care was 17.9 per cent in the U.S. and just 12 per cent in Canada.

“We have to be really collaborative to be able to compete, I think, with greater investments south of the border,” Prof. Cowen said.

It’s necessary for Canada to do its own research, and not just rely on countries like the U.S. to come up with solutions, if it doesn’t want to be left behind, Prof. Young said, giving the example of how Canada was forced to wait on other countries to deliver COVID-19 vaccines because it wasn’t producing any of its own.

Being self-reliant will become crucial in future years as climate change progresses and introduces new health challenges, he added. “It’s fundamentally important for us to do this.”

Andy Smith, chief executive officer and president of U of T’s research partner Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said the demand for health care in Canada is also set to increase as the country’s population grows and ages. Statistics Canada estimates 22.5 per cent of the population will be aged 65 or older over by 2030, up from 14.1 per cent in 2010.

Research in areas such as dementia will be even more vital as this population trend progresses, Dr. Smith said.

Forty-seven other Canadian institutions were recognized on the Nature Index’s health sciences ranking. When non-academic institutions were included, U of T was third. McGill University was next at 48th. The University of British Columbia took 67th and McMaster University was 80th.

In the ranking of all natural and health sciences, U of T came in 24th in the world. The closest other Canadian institutions were McGill in 72nd, UBC in 78th and the University of Alberta in 183rd.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the University of Toronto ranked second among all health sciences research institutes, rather than among academic ones, and gave incorrect rankings for some Canadian universities. This version has been corrected.


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