UVic genome project greenlit for federal funding

A University of Victoria genomic application project was one of five recipients of federal funding announced Monday by Parliamentary Secretary for Science Terry Beech at the UVic-Genome B.C. Proteomics Centre.

The $3.3-million project is co-led by its director, UVic professor Dr. Christoph Borchers, and Dr. Gerald Batist, affiliated with Montreal’s McGill University and Jewish General Hospital’s Segal Cancer Centre.

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Working with the biopharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, which has an anti-cancer drug AZD5363 in clinical development, they use antibodies and mass spectometry to look for multiple forms of the Akt protein in a single test.

The hope is “to identify where an anti-cancer drug is effective and where it is not,” Borchers said.

If the research that analyzes the expression and functionality of cancer-related proteins is successful, it could trigger development of a diagnostic test commercialized by Victoria-based partner MRM Proteomics Inc.

“We determine their concentration, activity and what types they are, using a tool that allows us to determine with incredible accuracy the mass and concentration of different proteins,” explained David Schibli, the Proteomics Centre’s associate director, who with lab manager Derek Smith conducted a tour of its labs in Vancouver Island Technology Park.

Beech, the Comox-born, Victoria-raised entrepreneur and philanthropist, was keen to chat with white-coated grad students as they demonstrated how lipid-handling robots can precisely analyze proteins.

“I want to talk to people who are doing the hands-on work,” he said.

Beech, 35, was joined by dignitaries including Dr. Moura Quayle, chair of Genome Canada, the not-for-profit organization that helps develop and apply genomics and genomic-based technologies; Olga Stachova, chief operating officer of Mitacs, its not-for-profit partner that designs and delivers research and training programs; Genome British Columbia CEO Pascal Spothelfer; and Rachel Scarth, UVic’s associate vice-president of research operations.

“I want to find out how they feel about things that are going on, where they think the opportunities are,” said Beech, Burnaby North Seymour MP, who attended school at Rockheights, Arbutus and Mount Douglas.

Beech, who was B.C.’s youngest elected official when he became a Nanaimo city councillor in 1999, said returning to Victoria for Monday’s announcement was additionally meaningful.

“My mother still lives here and coming back to Victoria is always fantastic for me,” said Beech, who also has a twin brother who lived here and a sister in Nanaimo.

“We’ve got a really interesting opportunity here, and we need to spend every minute we have making sure we do what we can, not just to benefit Canadians today, but future generations,” he said.

“I didn’t run for office so I could worry for just the next four years. I’m worried about the next 50 years, the next 100 years. So being in science where we’re dealing with problems in that timeline is very fulfilling for me.”

Other recipients of a total of $5.3 million provided through Genome Canada’s Genomic Applications Partnership Program included University of Calgary’s Dr. Casey Hubert, who is working with the Nova Scotia Department of Energy to “de-risk” offshore oil and gas exploration using genomic innovation; and University of Laval’s Dr. Charles Goulet, who is using variations in aroma-related genes to develop tastier tomatoes.

University of Toronto’s Dr. Elizabeth Edwards received funding for research into the use of specific microbes to accelerate biodegradation rates that would enable less expensive cleanups of contaminated industrial sites; as did Dr. Xiao-Yan Wen from Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, for development of drugs that could prevent a form of brain hemorrage responsible for 10 per cent of all strokes.

mreid@timescolonist.com

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