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SPOTLIGHT

Meet one of 2018’s big Killam Prize winners 15

NEWSMAKER

Paul Hebert revolutionizes the way we look at life on Earth 19

MOMENTS IN TIME

John Samuel McCord tracks the weather 22

MAY/JUNE 2018

Championing the Business of Biotechnology in Canada

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KILLAM PRIZE WINNER

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NEWSMAKER: PAUL HERBERT

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CARBON CAPTURE

The biotech industry may hold the keys to reducing the most harmful greenhouse gas.

Vladmir Hachinski has made important contributions to stroke and dementia research.

Championing the Business of Biotechnology in Canada

Molecular biologist and Scientific Director of the International Barcode of Life.

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There’s no denying it now, climate change is in full effect. If there was any lingering doubt in my mind, this summer’s soaring temperatures have burned them away. It wasn’t just in my home province of Ontario, where there was a humidex of 47 in Ottawa on Canada Day, the unusual heat was trending across the globe. According to Global News, parts of the northeastern U.S., the U.K., southern Russia, and the Middle East also broke records for hot summers this year. The heat has been so extreme it has even led to fatalities in certain parts of the world, including Quebec where the heat wave is being blamed for 70 deaths. The global average annual temperature is now 1 C warmer than it was a century ago, according to University of Waterloo climate scientist Blair Feltmate. All this is old news, though; we already know that humans have set in motion a colossal shift in the environment that threatens all life on this planet. The question now is what do we do about it? Investing in clean energy and trying to reduce our greenhouse gas pollution as a country is a great way to start. As an industry, life sciences has a definite role to play in coming up with innovative ways to slow down and maybe even halt the devastating domino effect of climate change. In this issue you will read about CO2 Solutions, a biotech company that has developed a novel way to redirect and reuse industrial carbon emissions. If ever there was an industry innovative enough and motivated enough to use its powers for environmental good, it Hermione Wilson is the life sciences industry. ASSISTANT EDITOR

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SECRETARY/TREASURER Susan A. Browne

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CANADIAN NEWS

4-H MEMBERS WIN AT CANADA-WIDE SCIENCE FAIR

Five 4-H members won top honours against other student innovators from across Canada at the recent Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa. Mac Dykeman of BC earned platinum and gold in the Junior category for her project, “Safer Chickments: An innovative solution to reducing stress in chick shipments.” Four other 4-H’ers won bronze at the Intermediate level: PEI’s Neleah Lavoie and Alberta’s Lara and Liesl Stewart and Amanda Hardman. 4-H Canada’s Science & Technology program is aimed at furthering STEM skills and knowledge in youth.

BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN RESEARCH AND COMMERCIALIZATION

MEDICAL CANNABIS RESEARCH CHAIR TO STUDY NEW THERAPIES

To explore the full potential of cannabis plants and to identify the most promising molecules, CannaSher Inc. and the University of Sherbrooke recently announced the creation of the CannaSher Chair on Medical Cannabis. This research chair is made possible by the investment of $900,000 from CannaSher and $703,700 from the University of Sherbrooke. Led by Pr. Kamal Bouarab of the Department of Biology, the Chair will generate and improve cannabis shoots capable of producing various cannabinoids. Bouarab will also test and optimize a new culture system developed by CannaSher to grow cannabis plants. The work of the Chair will also make it possible to train students in undergraduate and graduate studies as part of the research program.

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GENOME BC INVESTS $1 MILLION TO FUND 3D BIOPRINTING COMPANY

Genome BC has announced $1 million in funding to Aspect Biosystems (Aspect), a privately held biotechnology company focused on commercializing cutting-edge 3D bioprinting technologies. Aspect’s Lab-on-a-Printer 3D bioprinting platform technology enables the rapid creation of functional living tissues. The therapeutic applications are broad and profound and have attracted the attention of global pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

Photo credit: Rachel Pick

HyperGrowth: Life celebrates the graduation of its second cohort, a group that promises to change the way we live, work and play with breakthroughs at the intersection of technology and the life sciences. Recognizing the tremendous potential that exists within the life sciences, in 2016 the BC Tech Association (BC Tech) partnered with Genome BC to create HyperGrowth: Life, a program designed to address the gap between research and commercialization in the field. Life science is the study of living organisms. Although the field is critically important to humankind, few companies manage to scale their operations due to a lack of access to mentorship, capital and market know-how. HyperGrowth: Life fills that gap by providing life sciences entrepreneurs what they need to commercialize and grow their companies. “Our investment in this program, and partnership with BC Tech, is pivotal in advancing entrepreneurship, and simultaneously supporting growth for BC-based companies,” says Dr. Tony Brooks, Chief Financial Officer and Vice President, Entrepreneurship and Commercialization. “Genome BC is supporting these young and exciting companies to help drive BC’s knowledgebased economy.” The companies led by the new program graduates are addressing some of the biggest and most pressing challenges facing modern society in the areas of patient care, precision health, worker safety and sustainability. They include such companies as Careteam which helps patients, families and health care providers act effectively as a team; Creatus Biosciences Inc., which uses a bio-based platform to eliminate traditional, chemical approaches for the production of high-value specialty chemicals; dnaPower, which provides personalized testing and support using sequencing technology; LifeBooster, which uses the latest wearable technologies to help companies prevent musculoskeletal disorders; and Tickit Health, which helps optimize communication between people and their healthcare providers. HyperGrowth: Life is a sector-specific offshoot of BC Tech’s flagship accelerator program, HyperGrowth. Companies from previous cohorts have gone on to grow 300% (based on revenue, team size and number of users) and have doubled their team size by the end of program. Collectively, HyperGrowth and HyperGrowth: Life alumni have raised over $35 million in follow-on funding. During the program’s six-month acceleration period, this year’s cohort was able to leapfrog their companies into their next stage of growth. Laser-focused on preventing musculoskeletal injuries, LifeBooster CEO, Bryan Statham, secured two Fortune 100 clients, including a leading airline company. Careteam, in partnership with Centre for Aging and Brain Health at Baycrest Health Sciences, secured $480,000 in funding to implement its software for dementia care and senior wellness programs at Mackenzie Health and Champlain Dementia Network.


CANADIAN NEWS

BACTERIA POWERS SOLAR CELLS AT UBC

RESEARCHERS TEACH AI TO IDENTIFY DISEASE

Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Machine Intelligence in Medicine Lab are training artificial intelligence systems to recognize rare pathologies in X-ray images. The team created simulated X-rays that reflect certain rare conditions and combine them with real X-rays to build a sufficiently large database to train neural networks to identify these conditions on other X-rays. The researchers used generative adversarial networks (GANs), a type of algorithm that consists of two networks: one that generates images and another that tries to discriminate synthetic images from real images. The two networks are trained to the point that the discriminator cannot differentiate real images from synthesized ones.

CANADA ANNOUNCES CREATE GRANT INVESTMENT

New research out of UBC could revolutionize the way solar power technology functions. Vikramaditya Yadav, a researcher and professor in UBC’s department of chemical and biological engineering, leads a group of researchers that is using living organisms as a cheap, sustainable way to convert light into energy. The UBC researchers have developed biogenic solar cells that build on previous attempts to extract the natural dye bacteria use for photosynthesis. Instead of going through the expensive and time-consuming process of using toxic solvents to extract the dye, Yadav and his team left the dye in the bacteria. They genetically engineered E. coli to produce large amounts of lycopene, a dye that gives tomatoes their redorange colour and is effective at harvesting light for conversion to energy. They then coated the bacteria in a mineral that could act as a semiconductor and applied the mixture to a glass surface. The specially coated glass generated a current density of 0.686 milliamps per square centimetre, an improvement on the 0.362 achieved by others in the field. “We recorded the highest current density for a biogenic solar cell,” Yadav says. “These hybrid materials that we are developing can be manufactured economically and sustainably, and, with sufficient optimization, could perform at comparable efficiencies as conventional solar cells.” Right now the researchers are trying to find a process that doesn’t kill the dyeproducing E. coli bacteria, so that they can produce it indefinitely, but Yadav says this technology could lead to a more economical solar energy conversion process, with possible applications in mining, deep-sea exploration and other low-light environments. The research has been published in the most recent edition of the journal Small.

SCIENTISTS RULE OUT ALZHEIMER’S DRUG TARGET

Neuroscientists at Western University have ruled out a major potential treatment focus for Alzheimer’s disease that drug manufacturers have been targeting for years. BrainsCAN, Western’s $66 million Canada First Research Excellence Fund program in cognitive neuroscience, produced a study which found that overstimulation of muscarinic M1 receptors actually disrupts and even blocks working memory activity, which contradicts long-held beliefs about the function of these receptors found in the brain. The study showed that proactive stimulation of acetylcholine – an organic chemical that functions in the brain and body as a messenger for neural information – in human brain models did not garner the intended positive result of increasing memory but in fact, completely stunted the retention of newly acquired information.

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Photo credit: Clare Kiernan/UBC

The Government of Canada has announced $29.7 million in grants to support 18 Canadian student research teams across the country who are working in the area of environmental protection, green energy, and advanced manufacturing. The Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) grant program will provide students with the opportunity to intern with several industrial partners and government agencies. Research teams are working on a variety of projects, including one team that is developing ways to manage massive amounts of information used to predict future impacts of human actions on biodiversity. The teams include a wide range of collaborators from several countries, including Germany, France, Australia, the United States, Switzerland and Brazil.

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WORLDWIDE NEWS

DISCOVERY OF NOVEL MALARIA PARASITE BEHAVIOUR OFFERS NEW TARGET FOR TREATMENT

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Researchers have demonstrated novel parasite behaviour which offers a potential new target for malaria diagnosis and intervention. Malaria is a major global public health issue with millions of cases, and nearly half a million deaths every year. The new discovery in the parasite’s biology is revealed across a set of three studies led by the University of Glasgow’s Wellcome Centre for Molecular Parasitology. The studies are published in Nature Communications, Science Advances and MBio. The researchers have discovered that malaria parasites can occupy sites outside the bloodstream, specifically in the bone marrow and spleen where red blood cells are formed. The studies show in animal models and human infection that this is the major niche for the development of malaria transmission stages and a significant reservoir for the parasite’s replicative stages. The researchers demonstrate, for the first time, the movement of blood stage parasite forms and their migration across the vascular barrier to other parts of the body. Further, the work demonstrates that localization in the bone marrow and spleen allows the parasite not only to build a “reservoir of infection”, but also to gain additional protection from certain antimalarial drugs including the current frontline drug artemisinin. The findings from these new studies show why malaria parasites invading the bone marrow and spleen, where red blood cells are formed, could be crucial to targeting the disease. “These papers together represent a step forward in our understanding of the behaviour of the malaria parasite,” says Professor Andy Waters, Director of the Wellcome Centre for Molecular Parasitology. “It is possible that bone marrow serves as the reservoir of infection avoiding the immune system and preferentially producing and releasing gametocytes so that when mosquitoes appear the disease can be retransmitted.” “These findings will also allow us to potentially find new drug targets for the disease, redefine what drugs have to achieve in terms of parasite killing and find new ways to fight back against the malaria parasite,” says Professor James Brewer, Chair in Basic Immunology at the Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation. Malaria is a blood borne disease caused by single cell parasites that invade, grow and then replicate in red blood cells, which then burst releasing new parasites that initiate a new blood stage cycle of invasion – a process which makes malaria such a deadly disease. It is transmitted by female mosquitoes which themselves become infected when they take up parasites from an infected person as they take their blood meal. However, this human to mosquito transmission is only achieved if a small subset of blood borne parasites have escaped the cycle described above and instead have developed into a specialised form (a gametocyte) for transmission. “Malaria has a complex lifecycle which involves stages within the Anopheles mosquito, and within the human host, and past research to develop effective therapeutics targeting transmission has specifically focused on the mosquito stage,” says Matthias Marti, Professor of Parasitology. “In close collaboration with the lab of Prof. Volker Heussler (University of Berne, Switzerland) we have unravelled novel biological features of the parasite in its natural bone marrow and spleen environment, and we anticipate that these exciting findings will open up a new area of research. At the same time, we will evaluate the potential of our study for a new target for malaria diagnosis and intervention.” Two of the three studies were conducted as an international collaborative effort.

BALTIMORE COMPANY SUPPORTS COLLEGE STUDENTS IN ENTERING BIO INDUSTRY

As a result of a strong eight-year collaboration between PathSensors and Baltimore City Community College (BCCC), the Baltimorebased biotechnology solutions and the environmental testing company received a Community Partnership Award in May. Throughout the course of this relationship, PathSensors has brought on 20 BCCC students as interns and hired two to staff positions. “You have given each student the opportunity to learn hands-on skills and apply their coursework and we are very proud of this partnership,” says Amrita Madabushi, PhD, assistant professor of biology at BCCC.

LABCONNECT EXPANDS ADVANCED LABORATORY OPERATIONS CENTER

LabConnect, LLC, a leading global provider of central laboratory and support services for biopharmaceutical, medical device and contract research organizations, has completed phase one of an 11,000sq.ft. facility expansion in Johnson City, TN. The new space will significantly increase the capacity for peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) processing and allow LabConnect to better serve its clients. Phase one expanded the company’s clinical sample kit-building and storage capabilities. Phase two of the facility upgrade will add more offices and project management space, while phase three will build out the PBMC laboratory capabilities.

NANOSPHERE HEALTH SCIENCES WINS FROST & SULLIVAN AWARD

NanoSphere Health Sciences, the nano-biotechnology company that has commercialized a patented delivery system known as the NanoSphere Delivery System, has been awarded the 2018 Technology Innovation Award by Frost & Sullivan as part of the annual Best Practices Awards for North America. The delivery system is a smart lipid nanoparticle delivery platform. Patented “NanoSpheres”, or lipid nanoparticles, nano-encapsulate biological agents into a protective, phospholipid membrane. The encapsulated ingredients are rapidly delivered through the skin or mucosa to targeted sites.


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FEATURE STORY

REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE CO2 CAPTURE TECHNOLOGIES COULD BE THE KEY TO REDUCING EMISSIONS

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BY HERMIONE WILSON

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s part of its participation in the Paris Agreement, Canada has committed to .reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. In December 2016, the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change was adopted, a plan that seeks, among other goals, to reduce emissions across all industries and accelerate clean economic growth. Of all the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2) has been recognized as having the most detrimental effect on the atmosphere. “CO2 is a long-lived greenhouse gas,” says research scientist Vivek Arora. “If you put CO2 in the atmosphere right now, it’s going to stay there for 100, 200 years. Unlike methane, which gets destroyed in the atmosphere due to chemical processes, once you put CO2 in the atmosphere, there is no physical or chemical process in the atmosphere which will destroy it. The only way CO2 can be taken back up is by trees and by the ocean.” Arora works with the Climate Research Division (CRD) of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and has developed the land vegetation component of CRD’s Earth System Model (ESM). His job at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, a section of the CRD, is to grow virtual trees in a computergenerated climate model. “There is computer code that sees what the climate is like, how much it rains, what is the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, and then the trees grow,” Arora says. By factoring in historical and present-day data about the carbon cycle as it is expressed on land, Arora can use the model as a predictor of the future. Because of the complexity and biodiversity of land, different models tend to diverge from each other about what effect climate change will have on land, Arora says. “But they all agree on the fact that as climate warming continues, land will likely become a source of carbon. As CO2 increases in the atmosphere, for every additional CO2 increase, the vegetation takes up less and less carbon.” Arora says as the land becomes a weaker carbon sink, it will be up to the oceans to take up the majority of CO2, yet the rising temperature will also slow down this ability. According to the Paris Agreement, in order to respond to the threat of climate change, participating countries must be able to keep “a global temperature rise this century well below 2 C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 C” In order to do this, we need to be sucking more CO2 out of the atmosphere than we are putting in, Arora says. “There is a whole new industry which is thinking about how to suck up carbon from the atmosphere and turn it into things which we can use, and that carbon will be tucked away and removed from the system.”

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Of all the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2) has been recognized as having the most detrimental effect on the atmosphere.


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FEATURE STORY

Statistics Canada estimates 274,000 jobs were attributable to environmental and clean technology activity in 2016 and in a statement, Environment and Climate Change Canada estimate “the global market for clean energy and technology is worth trillions of dollars and growing rapidly”. This is why the federal government is investing in technology companies that are developing innovations and technologies with an eye on a cleaner, more environmentally proactive future. One of the most promising, in terms of turning the tide of climate change and the effects of CO2 emissions, is carbon dioxide capture. According to International Energy Agency (IEA) around 15 per cent of CO2 emissions (or five billion tons) per year will be reduced using CO2 capture by about 2040, says Evan Price, CEO of CO2 Solutions. The Quebec-based biotechnology company has developed a carbon dioxide capture technology that builds on older methods and makes them more efficient and environmentally friendly. “We take CO2 from an [industrial] gas stream and we extract the CO2 from there and provide it at the other end of our process as pure CO2,” Price says. CO2 Solutions is one of a few companies developing non-conventional CO2 capture technologies to be used in an industrial setting, he says. The traditional method of CO2 capture, which dates back to the 1930s, was never designed for largescale capture and involves a highly toxic chemical called amine. Flue gas at an industrial plant is run into a column or contactor, where a solvent designed to pull in CO2 makes contact with the gas itself. “When the liquid meets the gas, what is in the liquid is designed to pull in the CO2 and then it gets transformed

into something that stays in the liquid,” Price says. CO2 Solutions set about improving that process, both by making it less toxic, but also scaling it up and making it more efficient. The company uses a chemical called potassium carbonate in its CO2 capture process, instead of amine. The potassium carbonate, when added to water, simulates seawater but much more concentrated. “Potassium carbonate is low cost, it’s very stable, environmentally it’s very benign, and there’s nothing toxic about it, but it’s very slow,” Price says. “What that means is, as the gas goes up with CO2, the potassium carbonate is too slow to capture the quantity that we want. It would take a very tall column to capture all the CO2 because the exchange is just too slow.” To accelerate the desired reaction,

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In a 2016 statement, Environment and Climate Change Canada estimate “the global market for clean energy and technology is worth trillions of dollars and growing rapidly.”


FEATURE STORY

“If you can imagine, on one industrial site we would have our CO2 capture unit, capturing CO2 from a flue gas stream, and then around it there would be pods of technologies that would take the CO2 and transform it into another product. – Evan Price, CEO, CO2 Solutions

an enzyme that acts as a biocatalyst is added to the mixture. The enzyme, carbonic anhydrase, is present in animals and humans and functions as a regulator of CO2 in our bodies. Price calls the enzyme CO2 Solution’s “pixie dust”. Once the CO2 is pulled into the enhanced potassium carbonate solvent at the bottom of the contactor, it goes over to a stripping column where heat is applied and the reaction is reversed. The CO2 comes out of the solvent and is released in a pure form. With the amine-based CO2 capture process, very high temperatures are required to break the bond between the amine solvent and the CO2 molecule, Price says. “In our case, the potassium carbonate doesn’t create such a strong bond, so the heat required is lower. Basically, with hot water, we get the potassium carbonate to release the CO2,” he says. Luckily for CO2 Solutions, there is no end of available hot water in

an industrial plant and it costs them nothing. When CO2 Solutions was approached by the Government of Quebec in 2018 about working together on carbon capture utilization and sequestration, the company focused on the utilization side, which it identified as an underdeveloped area. “We felt that there was a much greater potential for reusing this CO2 in the same way we reuse waste,” Price says. He points out that CO2 utilization applications are numerous: CO2 can be put into soda, used in greenhouses and for industrial use in water treatment plants, or transformed into metals like lithium carbonate. “If you can imagine, on one industrial site we would have our CO2 capture unit, capturing CO2 from a flue gas stream, and then around it there would be pods of technologies that would take the CO2 and transform it into another product,” Price says. CO2 Solutions is now part of the Valorisation Carbone Quebec (VCQ) project, which began in 2017 and will run until 2022 and involves the Quebec government and CO2 Solutions is now part of the Valorisation Carbone Quebec (VCQ) project, which was launched in 2016 and will run until 2022, along with the Government of Quebec and Laval University. CO2 Solutions has also entered into agreements with several other companies to convert the CO2 it captures with its potassium carbonatebased process into different products. Although much of VCQ’s efforts are based in Quebec, Price stresses that discussions are taking place around the world. “We see ourselves applying this technology particularly to large industries and helping them reduce their CO2 emissions,” Price says. “Today, I think there are about 37 million tons that are being reduced using [CO2 capture] systems, so we’re still a long long way away from where we have to be.” BB

The federal government is investing in technology companies that are developing innovations and technologies with an eye on a cleaner, more environmentally proactive future. Statistics Canada estimates 274,000 jobs were attributable to environmental and clean technology activity in 2016. According to the Paris Agreement, in order to respond to the threat of climate change, participating countries must be able to keep “a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

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Canada has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

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IN THE SPOTLIGHT

VLADIMIR HACHINSKI TRANSFORMING THE LIVES OF PEOPLE AFFECTED BY STROKE AND DEMENTIA BIO BUSINESS M AY/J U N E 2 01 8

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BY JANA MANOLAKOS

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he few hundred words in his modest CV barely reveal the colossal impact that Vladimir Hachinski, one of Canada’s leading clinical neuroscientists and researchers, has had on the lives of people affected by stroke and dementia. The titles, publications and accolades listed there only hint at how over his lifetime he has transformed the understanding, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of these two catastrophic diseases. No wonder then that the celebrated physician is among this year’s recipients of the 2018 Killam Prize – yet another of a long list of honours bestowed on him for his work in vascular cognitive impairment, stroke and brain-heart interactions.


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IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Vladimir Hachinski, one of the recipients of the 2018 Killam Prize.

Did you know?

The Killam Prize awards $100,000 prize to five recipients, Canada’s finest scholars and academics who have dedicated their lives to groundbreaking research. The other science winner, University of Calgary’s Dr. Walter Herzog, is being awarded for his research and innovative discoveries regarding various bone, muscle and joint diseases like osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and fibromyalgia. By 2025, it is believed that nearly a quarter of Canadians will be affected by these diseases. Herzog’s research will not only help prevent this from occurring, but detect and treat current cases.

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Hachinski has shown that vascular dementia is caused by ministrokes, referring to the disease as multi-infarct dementia and paved the way for novel therapeutic approaches. An important new tool that he subsequently developed – the Hachinski Ischemic Score for diagnosing multi-infarct and primary degenerative dementias – has since been cited 2,600 times in literature. While on staff at Sunnybrook Medical Centre, together with his colleague Dr. John Norris, they established the globally recognized MacLachlan Stroke Unit in the 1970s – the world’s first acute intensive care stroke unit that set the template for a standard of care in other units that followed. He was the principal neurological investigator of the Canadian American Ticlopidine Study, assessing the efficacy and safety of ticlopidine hydrochloride in patients who have suffered a thromboembolic stroke – one of his many studies looking at improving outcomes for stroke and dementia patients. Hachinski’s name is synonymous with advocacy. He coined the term “brain attack” to stress the urgency of stroke. He led the adoption of a World Stroke Organization proclamation addressing stroke and potentially preventable dementias, endorsed by thinktanks around the world. He was the first Canadian President of the World Federation of Neurology serving from 2010 to 2013. For an unprecedented 10 years, he served as Editor-in-Chief of Stroke, the leading publication in the field. He has published 18 books, including his most recent, Treatable and Potentially Preventable Dementias, published this June – and more than 800 scientific articles. His CV is packed with a multitude of national and international awards – from fellowships, to lectures, honorary doctorates and prizes “in recognition of outstanding research accomplishments and contributions” – as cited by one of these. Among them he received the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada, the Prince Mahidol Award in 2017 and was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2018. Hachinski graduated with an MD from the University of Toronto and trained in internal medicine and neurology in Montreal and Toronto and in research in London and Copenhagen. He has been awarded four honourary doctorates and is currently Professor of Neurology and Epidemiology and Distinguished University Professor at Western University. BB

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erched on the deck of the HMS Beagle off the west coast of Ecuador in the fall of 1835, Charles Darwin, sketchbook in hand, ruminated over differences among similar species. His subsequent ideas about natural selection, generated after years of observations and punctuated by heated debates among Victorian-era scientists, led to the theory of evolution. Flash forward to today. At the University of Guelph, Prof. Paul Hebert and his colleagues have revolutionized the way we look at life on this planet beyond anything Darwin could have imagined. Under his leadership, the group has shown that sequence variation in a short segment of a standard gene can reliably distinguish species. Dubbed “DNA barcoding”, the method won him this year’s prestigious Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands The work we are doing is critically Academy of Arts and Science, “for his pivotal contribution important to the planet. We are living to developing a genetic barcode capable of classifying every biological species on Earth”. in a time when the number of humans And if Hebert, a molecular biologist, has his way, is exploding. There are now more researchers will have provided DNA barcodes for all of the estimated 10 to 20 million species on our planet by 2045. than seven billion of us and this count We caught up with Hebert, Director of the University of will rise to 9.6 billion by 2050, putting Guelph’s Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, and professor pressure on the environment as society in its Department of Integrative Biology. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and an Officer of the Order of strives to meet their needs. Canada. He holds the Canada Research Chair in Molecular Biodiversity and is Scientific Director of the International – Paul Hebert, Director, Centre for Biodiversity Barcode of Life (iBOL) project in which researchers from Genomics, and Professor, Department of Integrative 25 countries are assigning DNA barcodes to millions of Biology, University of Guelph specimens.


NEWSMAKER

Why was it important to receive the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Science? When one has pursued an idea for two decades, it is nice to receive recognition that it is leading somewhere interesting, especially since DNA barcoding was born in fire. The early years were turbulent, with its validity as a standardized tool hotly contested by some members of the scientific community, so it is gratifying the world has now embraced this concept. The selection panel recognized the revolutionary aspect of DNA barcoding and acknowledged that our past work has laid the foundation for a major advance in biodiversity science. What does this recognition mean to life on Earth? The work we are doing is critically important to the planet. We are living in a time when the number of humans is exploding. There are now more than seven billion of us and this count will rise to 9.6 billion by 2050, putting pressure on the environment as society strives to meet their needs. The ways in which we produce food and how we extract other resources from the environment to support humanity are critical issues from a biodiversity perspective. For example, we need to find ways to reduce the impacts of agriculture on ecosystems. Around the world, agriculture is depleting wild spaces, creating a huge risk to biodiversity. For example, over the last 30 years, the insect populations in Europe have collapsed by 70 per cent. Here in Canada, migratory birds are returning in greatly diminished numbers and this, in turn, has a negative effect on the ecosystem. How can DNA barcoding mitigate these potentially catastrophic environmental issues? Our work will make it possible to monitor global ecosystem functions like food webs. Once the DNA barcode of a species

is registered, we can easily track its numbers and detect shifts in its distribution through our bio-surveillance stations, allowing action to be taken. Like the monitoring programs that first recorded the depletion of ozone in our atmosphere and the weather stations that warned us of global warming, our biodiversity tracking system will allow humanity to monitor ecosystem functions. It is important information that will help incentivize humans to do a better job in protecting the environment. If we don’t do something, humanity’s population growth will potentially result in a mass extinction similar in scale to that which led to the loss of dinosaurs and many other organisms some 65 million years ago. You were instrumental in launching the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) project in 2010, a global network of researchers, supported by a number of international organizations in Africa, North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Can you tell me more about the work that the Canadian team in iBOL is leading? We are working toward the deployment of biodiversity monitoring stations in all 15 Canadian ecoregions, beginning this year with the Mixedwood Plains region that extends through the densely populated areas from Windsor to Montreal. Next year, we will tackle the Boreal Shield and the following year, the Prairies. Our monitoring stations don’t have a large footprint and apply passive collection methods to gather large numbers of invertebrate specimens from the soil and air. We currently have about 150 stations deployed in Canada and many more stations in other nations, including 25 in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, one of the most important reserves on our planet. This DNA-based approach will allow us to track species

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In Canada, migratory birds are returning in greatly diminished numbers and this, in turn, has a negative effect on the ecosystem.

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NEWSMAKER

distributions with a precision that was previously impossible. By 2025, we hope to move from monitoring one ecoregion at a time to activating a permanent biosurveillance system, as part of the science infrastructure of Canada. iBOL has two distinct phases. We finished the first stage in 2015, completing the classification of 500,000 species over a five-year period. We then spent two years identifying new, more economical analytical protocols, and this July we will launch iBOL-II which will conclude in 2025 with the classification of 1.5 million species. This work will catalyze an even bigger project in 2026; the Planetary Biodiversity Mission will complete the inventory of all species and launch a global bio-surveillance system by 2045. This is a one-time mission and Canada has the opportunity to show the way – to be recognized as a world leader in the digital transformation of biodiversity science.

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Reading life on a planetary scale will need significant funding. Can you comment? Canada has invested several hundred million dollars into major international research programs like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and the world’s largest telescope in Hawaii, projects that are probing atomic structures and the outer reaches of our universe. Without a doubt, these are important initiatives, but they are not as time-sensitive nor do they touch our lives as much as biodiversity. We are living on a planet that is at risk of losing a third of its species by the end of this century. There is a critical need to invest in a Planetary Biodiversity Mission to avert this loss, and it’s the chance for Canada to lead a project rather than simply join one led by other nations. How has your work touched your personal life? The greatest satisfaction has been being able to pursue biodiversity on a grand scale – something that has been my

We are living on a planet that is at risk of losing a third of its species by the end of this century. There is a critical need to invest in a Planetary Biodiversity Mission to avert this loss, and it’s the chance for Canada to lead a project rather than simply join one led by other nations.

passion since I was a kid – and finding an approach that will help to ensure its protection. This weekend, I’ll be taking my wonderful four-year-old grandson into the woods in search of nature. In years to come, I envision him taking his children into the forests to explore biodiversity. Like Charles Darwin, they’ll be able to touch, see, and hear the biodiversity around them, but they will also have a new capability – they will be bioliterate. Simply with a tap of their communication device, they will immediately be able to access all of the knowledge that humanity has acquired about every species they encounter. BB

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MOMENTS IN TIME

TRACKING THE

WEATHER

D

uring the 1800s, there was no standard method to understand the weather. Farmers and scientists kept their own weather records, but these records were often informal. John Samuel McCord deplored the “lack of system in times and manner of [meteorological] observations�. Thus, he pursued his interests by keeping detailed meteorological journals, and he first published his findings in the 1835 London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine. McCord, a prominent Montrealer and member of the Meteorological Society of London, contributed a great deal of information and research to the meteorological community and worked tirelessly to establish weather stations throughout Canada. BB

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References: http://cmosarchives.ca/History/McGillObservatory1965.pdf https://bit.ly/2Jzipyi https://bit.ly/2LhutJx

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Bio Business May/June 2018  

Bio Business May/June 2018