Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto
U of T Chemistry News

Professor Aaron Wheeler receives $3m Genome Canada grant

February 4, 2019
by Dan Haves

Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport, announced today the funding recipients from Genome Canada’s Disruptive Innovations in Genomics.

Aaron Wheeler, a professor in the department of chemistry with a cross-appointment to the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, will receive $3m in funding to develop a safe, inexpensive, and non-invasive prenatal diagnostic test.

Wheeler, in collaboration with physicians at Sinai Health System (SHS), is using his lab-on-a-chip technology to isolate fetal cells for an accurate detection of genetic abnormalities in the fetus as early as 6 weeks of pregnancy.

This provides an alternative to current methods that must be done in a hospital, making them comparatively expensive, and which rarely bring back results before 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“This is an exciting and meaningful project and I’m grateful to Genome Canada for its support,” says Wheeler.

With today’s methods, there is a two-step process to check for genetic abnormalities. First, a maternal blood test screens for “high-risk” pregnancies. On positive screens, those results are then confirmed by a diagnostic test on the fetal cells collected through one of two invasive procedures.

The procedures – amniocentesis or chorionic villi sampling (CVS) – both involve a risk of miscarriage.

“Approximately two to three per cent of all newborns today are born with a serous congenital anomaly,” says Wheeler. “There is clearly a need for safe, less invasive, and less expensive prenatal diagnostics which can provide genetic information at an earlier stage of pregnancy.”

With this new method there is the potential for a single-step diagnostic, that could eventually be offered to all pregnant couples. The new test makes use of fetal cells that are collected non-invasively through a procedure developed by SHS, similar to a routine PAP smear.

Samples collected in this manner are then loaded into the Wheeler team’s microfluidic devices to isolate the most promising cells in the specimen for prenatal diagnosis of genetic abnormalities.

With this method, there is no risk of miscarriage and it can be carried out by family physicians, obstetricians and gynecologists.

“This has the potential to transform the way prenatal diagnosis is delivered in Canada and around the world.”


This funding is a “Phase II” grant from Genome Canada, partially funded by the province of Ontario. This grant was preceded by a “Phase I” grant from Genome Canada. In addition, this project is funded by a Connaught Innovation award.