Ending the Drought: Ottawa’s Medical Research Community Welcomes Long-Awaited Wet Lab Facilities

Better healthcare
Advanced Medical Research Centre
Most people only think about their metabolism when their pants get too tight, blaming weight gain on their metabolism slowing down.

Professor Mary-Ellen Harper’s take on metabolism is more of a scientific obsession, something she has been thinking about every day since high school. 

“I was just fascinated by how different systems and organs of our body work together for metabolic health,” she says from her office at uOttawa’s Faculty of Medicine.

Metabolism is the sum of chemical reactions in the cells of our body that transform the food we eat into the energy we need to live. 

A globally recognized scientist who is also a uOttawa alum, Harper is director of the Harper Laboratory of Mitochondrial Bioenergetics. Her research team investigates how metabolism can become disordered inside cells, causing diabetes and diseases that affect the heart, brain, skeletal muscles and pancreas

“We hope our research will lead to better treatment options for metabolic diseases such as type-2 diabetes that affect so many Canadian adults,” Harper explains.

Building space to attract and retain top talent

In addition to teaching and conducting research, Harper leads the Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology, an institute based at the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine where 38 experts study mechanisms of disease. They’ve worked apart for the past five years due to a chronic shortage of wet labs, which are highly specialized environments where researchers can work with chemicals and biological samples.

“We’ve not only grown considerably as a team during my time here, our needs have grown as well,” says Harper. “Advanced types of equipment often have unique technical requirements and often are fairly big. As we ramp up our research, we need infrastructure and space that can keep up, and I know we’re not alone in that regard.”

Mary-Ellen Harper

“As we ramp up our research, we need infrastructure and space that can keep up, and I know we’re not alone in that regard.”

Mary-Ellen Harper

— uOttawa professor and director of the Harper Laboratory of Mitochondrial Bioenergetics

This shortage of wet lab space has forced researchers and biotech startups to leave Ottawa.

That’s why uOttawa is stepping up to bridge that gap. Sylvain Charbonneau, who is vice-president of research and innovation at uOttawa, coordinates many of the University’s research activities with the region’s five hospitals and six research institutes. He’s also part of a leadership team that is creating the new Advanced Medical Research Centre (AMRC), currently under construction at uOttawa’s Alta Vista Campus, where the Faculty of Medicine is located, adjacent to CHEO and The Ottawa Hospital.

“This is the most important investment ever to be put forward by the University of Ottawa. It will bring about 350,000 square feet of research facilities dedicated to research and innovation,” he says with a big smile.

Slated to open in the first half of 2026, the AMRC aims to be a hotbed of interdisciplinary innovation focused on research that will ultimately improve patient care. It will be home to dozens of medical laboratories, core facilities and other critical infrastructure to support innovation, research, education and commercialization.

Designed for collaboration and to earn LEED Gold certification, the AMRC will be among the most sustainable new buildings in Ottawa. It will offer state-of-the-art equipment with offices, conference rooms and lab space for rent. The building will also feature a bright atrium where people will gather and make connections across different disciplines.

Building a biotech sector in Ottawa  

One key feature of the AMRC will be the Innovation Hub, where researchers can team up with venture capitalists and other investors to incubate and support  startups and commercialize their discoveries. They will receive mentorship and advice on regulatory compliance, legal issues and business development.

Given the high cost of lab space and business expertise, Charbonneau says this is the kind of base camp that is needed to launch local companies that feature world-class innovation and discoveries. He is keen for the AMRC to team up with venture capitalists and investors to do just that.

“For the past 15 years, the University has spun off over 35 companies from the Faculty of Medicine. The challenge that we’re facing is that, currently, these entrepreneurs cannot all be absorbed into the local ecosystem. They go to Montreal, they go to Toronto. Even worse, they go to Boston and California. Building a thriving biotech sector in Ottawa starts here,” he says.

Sylvain Charbonneau

“For the past 15 years, the University has spun off over 35 companies from the Faculty of Medicine. … Building a thriving biotech sector in Ottawa starts here.”

Sylvain Charbonneau

— Vice-president of research and innovation at uOttawa

Ottawa is increasingly being recognized as a leading centre of health research and innovation. In mid-April, the federal government announced $115.8 million to fund a new Canadian Pandemic Preparedness Hub. The University of Ottawa, in partnership with The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and McMaster University will co-lead this galvanizing project. It’s a huge investment in Ontario’s ability to commercialize new biotherapeutics, such as vaccines, antibodies and gene therapies. 

“We’re putting in place an environment that is conducive for this entrepreneurship mindset for researchers,” says Charbonneau. “What you'll find is that many top-notch professors will want, at some point, to think about their entrepreneurial future.

The Advanced Medical Research Centre is more than just a sophisticated facility to retain Ottawa’s best scientific hearts and minds. It is also driving a change in culture within the life sciences and biotech sector, one that is bolder, more ambitious and resilient. 

For more information on the AMRC and how to support Canadian research, healthcare innovation and patient well-being, please contact uOttawa’s Executive Director of Corporate Development Jonathan Bodden at [email protected] or call 613-614-3571.