Dr. Lucy Gilbert is revolutionizing women’s health
Numinus is betting on psychedelics to cure mental illness VOLUME 36, ISSUE 1 • 2021
gamechangers & groundbreaking
D I S C O V E R I E S
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DR. LUCY GILBERT, A WOMAN OF INFLUENCE
Her genomics-based uterine pap test, now in Phase 3 trials, could save millions of lives – plus, a short profile of three other 2021 Women of Influence
A CURE FOR MENTAL ILLNESS?
Canadian company Numinus is among the few groundbreakers to explore psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy
40+ GAMECHANGERS & GROUNDBREAKING DISCOVERIES
INTERNATIONAL CASE STUDY
Nobel Prize winners, international collaborations and Canadian companies that are transforming science – and the world
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European company Veramis upgraded the world’s first facility for omega-3 oil made from marine algae, in Blair, Nebraska
Guest Editorial: Suzanne Ma highlights three pandemic trends that are here to stay
Risk Management: There’s a lot at stake for livestock producers
Feature: Canada’s natural and functional food innovators and investors are thriving
6 CANADIAN NEWS 7 SUZUKI MATTERS
WORLDWIDE NEWS LAB WARE
MOMENTS IN TIME
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As we greet another spring, this one feels a lot different. We’re almost used to wearing masks whenever we leave the house, slathering sanitizer on our hands and avoiding human contact. Or are we? Along with worldwide fatalities surpassing 2.6 million to date, COVID-19 has taken a massive toll on mental health. It’s still too early to quantify the overall impacts of this pandemic, but everyone can agree that their stress levels have reached new highs. The Mental Health Commission of Canada notes that SARS, Ebola, Zika and other past outbreaks had considerable effects: “Patients and their families often experienced stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, panic and suicidal ideation, all of which highlight the critical need for continuing care after the resolution of the actual illness.”1 For those who were already struggling with moderate to severe mental health disorders, the pandemic represents a tipping point. That’s where companies like Numinus (featured on p.27), which is exploring the use of psychedelics to treat mental disorders, can be real gamechangers. Admittedly, “gamechanger” is an overused word, especially these days – but in science, many discoveries have transformed future research on a fundamental level. In this issue, we look at some of the important international developments and Canadian companies that are steering us towards new horizons, whether it’s a method of detecting cancer before it forms or using robotics and AI to revolutionize laboratory research. As scientists tackle the world’s biggest challenges, we can be encouraged by the rate of innovation. The unprecedented speed of vaccine development for COVID-19 is more proof that a new era of discovery is upon us. Without the teams of scientists who tackled this crisis head-on, we would be facing a much darker future. For many – especially those working on the frontlines in healthcare – news of a successful vaccine (and now, several) was a breath of fresh air after almost a year of worsening headlines. The projects and people featured in this issue are exploring ideas, solving problems and sometimes collaborating across borders, often for the advancement of humanity. Many are women, and people of colour – because science is everyone’s domain. It is, ultimately, the foundation for our understanding of the universe and humanity’s place in a vast jello of possibility. Albert Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” As scientists question “what if ?” and “how?”, they answer crucial questions, and often uncover new ones. Without imagination, and the determination to find answers, science wouldn’t be where it is today – and those who are getting vaccinated can agree, that’s a relief.
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BY DAVID SUZUKI WITH CONTRIBUTIONS FROM SENIOR EDITOR AND WRITER IAN HANINGTON
CLIMATE CHANGE IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST
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Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Ian Hanington is Senior Editor, David Suzuki Foundation. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.
nother year, another record. Even with a global seven percent drop in fossil fuel burning during the pandemic, 2020 tied 2016 for the hottest year recorded, making the past decade the warmest. The previous record in 2016 was set during an El Niño event, which contributed somewhat to rising temperatures, meaning last year was likely the hottest in terms of global heating. Average global surface temperature was 1.25°C higher than the pre-industrial average, nearing the 1.5°C aspirational target the world’s nations set under the Paris Agreement five years ago. In the Arctic and northern regions, average temperature was 3° to 6°C higher. As the world heats up, we’re experiencing everincreasing impacts, from deadly heat waves to more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Last year, the Western U.S., Siberia, Australia and parts of South America were hit with some of the biggest, most expensive wildfires on record, and studies showed climate disruption played a major role. These fires release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and destroy important carbon sinks, driving warming even faster. Smoke and particulates also cause health problems and death. Last year also set records for Atlantic hurricanes and tied 2018 for the most tropical cyclones. It’s dire, but there’s still time to avoid the worst consequences – if we act quickly and decisively. New research shows global average temperatures could stabilize within a couple of decades if we quickly reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Reducing emissions to “net zero” means not releasing any more than are being removed from the atmosphere. Although dramatically bringing emissions down is the critical factor, methods to remove CO2 and other greenhouse gases – such as forest and wetland protection and restoration, and
carbon capture and sequestration – can balance out some released emissions. As the UN points out, affordable methods to get to net zero exist. At the end of 2020, 126 countries representing 51 percent of emissions had either adopted, announced or were considering net-zero goals, according to the World Economic Forum. The European Union, Japan, South Korea and the U.K. have pledged to do so by 2050, as has the incoming U.S. Biden administration. Canada has introduced legislation but must do even more. Previous research indicated rapid heating would continue long after we reduce emissions because gases such as CO2 and methane remain in the atmosphere for many years. New findings offer a hint of optimism. This is in part because as we bring emissions under control, natural systems such as oceans, wetlands and forests – and possibly technology – will remove some greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Of course, that means we must also take better care of those natural systems. It’s all interconnected. We’re not on track to meet even the aspirational target of 1.5°C warming. We’ve already heated to at least 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels and are heading to 2°C or more. We’re still looking at more heat waves, flooding, wildfires, disease spread, displacement of people and refugee crises, biodiversity loss and water shortages. But to avert even worse catastrophe, we can and must do all we can to bring it under control. We already have affordable methods to achieve net-zero emissions, and it’s likely we’ll continue to develop more and better solutions. Resolving the crisis will lead to a less-polluted, healthier world with greater opportunities for all. Look at how rapidly the world has been able to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Not that it’s under control, but vaccines have been developed in record time, and countries that have acted decisively to implement safety measures have seen success. And the powerful computers that most of us now carry in our pockets and purses show how quickly technology can develop. As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe told the Washington Post, “It’s no longer a question of when the impacts of climate change will manifest themselves: They are already here and now. The only question remaining is how much worse it will get. And the answer to that question is up to us.” We must all get behind rapid and decisive climate action. Taking steps in our own lives is important, but holding governments and industry to account is crucial. There’s no time to waste.
CANADIAN SCIENTISTS UNCOVER HOW EBOLA TRICKS ITS WAY INTO THE HUMAN BODY
surface of a cell,” explains Dr. Marceline Côté, the primary investigator in this study. The virus is then unwittingly carried by immune cells to other parts of the body, spreading the infection. Virtually all organs become replication sites for the virus. Once inside the host cell, the virus needs a specific receptor to lock itself in and begin multiplying. Researchers are looking for a drug that prevents it from locking in. Côté’s team identified a collection of potential drugs that could do this, and sent them off to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg to test the drugs on the virus. The lab found that a small number of cancer chemotherapy drugs were effective in preventing Ebola from gaining a foothold in the cells.
ALBERTA CREATES WORLD’S LARGEST CONTINUOUS PROTECTED BOREAL FOREST AREA
Alberta’s government is planning a massive expansion to the Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland. Under the plan, 143,800 hectares of land will be added to over 160,000 hectares of protected boreal forests in northeastern Alberta. Almost all of the proposed expansion overlaps with a woodland caribou habitat and a small portion of the Ronald Lake bison herd range – both mammals that have been identified as species at risk. It also will increase watershed protection and will support treaty rights and activities of the Indigenous people who live in the area. To get to this point, the Mikisew Cree First Nation led collaborative work on a potential expansion, and discussions occurred with other Indigenous communities, the Alberta Government and industry stakeholders. Among the industry partners, Athabasca Oil Corporation and Cenovus surrendered their Crown mineral agreements in the area. Athabasca president and CEO Rob Broen points out that his company relinquished over 95,000 hectares of mineral rights to support the park expansion. Cenovus’ chief sustainability officer noted that the park will help meet the provinces biodiversity and conservation goals.
Under the plan, 143,800 hectares of land will be added to over 160,000 hectares of protected boreal forests in northeastern Alberta.
B I O L A B M AG.C O M
It was once thought that Ebola and related filoviruses were contained to Central Africa, but researchers now understand that this viral family – causing hemorrhagic fevers with up to 90 percent fatality rates – has been widespread around the world for millions of years. While a vaccine is available against one Ebola strain, there are issues with its production and distribution. Now, a new study by researchers at the University of Ottawa has identified the pathway that all filoviruses use to enter cells – and shows how they can be stopped by at least one FDAapproved drug. Upon entry, Ebola disguises itself as a dying cell. “It’s cloaking itself in a lipid that is normally not exposed at the
While a vaccine is available against one Ebola strain, there are issues with its production and distribution.
NEW FACIAL RECOGNITION SOFTWARE CAN NOW IDENTIFY INDIVIDUAL BEARS
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A research project led by B.C.’s University of Victoria geography postdoctoral fellow Melanie Clapham proves that individual brown bears can be identified from photographs alone – something which had previously only been done for primates. Using artificial intelligence, Clapham led researchers and software engineers in training computers to identify bears from photographs using facial recognition. She explains, “We wanted to assess the behaviour of individual bears over time, but realized how difficult it can be to tell these bears apart.” The freely available software, BearID, lets scientists track populations of grizzly bears, without physically or genetically tagging them. Using facial recognition technology, this “deep learning” technique has the potential to reduce humanwildlife conflicts by identifying particular bears – like those repeatedly breaking into garbage cans – and has applications for other species without unique or distinguishable markings. As a result of training the deep learning system, the team
Researchers take a new approach to improve widely used biotechnology tool
was able to identify individual bears with an 84 percent accuracy using thousands of images of bears collected from two camera traps set up at Knight Inlet in B.C. and Brooks River in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. For Dallas Smith, president of Nanwakolas Council, this research opens doors for grizzly bear monitoring in the traditional territories of local First Nations (where Knight Inlet is located). He notes, “This amazing technology will help us identify individual bears and better understand their movement and interactions throughout our territories, which will enable us to build better management plans around habitat protection.” Smith adds, “It will help us manage and mitigate the impact of wildlife viewing, as well as positioning ourselves to more effectively and efficiently deal with bear-human conflicts that are becoming more and more prevalent.” The research was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council grant and two ecotourism companies, Knight Inlet Lodge and Wild Bear Lodge.
Dr. Sui-lam Wong, from the University of Calgary, and Dr. Kenneth Ng, from the University of Windsor, have designed a “switch” that allows researchers to control the interactions between two molecules, streptavidin and biotin. By creating new ways to control the binding and release of the two molecules, many new lab techniques can be developed to enable other health discoveries and improved diagnostic tests. The teams used beamlines at the Canadian Light Source in analyzing the effects of these changes on the streptavidin-biotin complex.
NEW WHITE PAPER POINTS TO THE IMPACT OF ENGINEERING BIOLOGY ON CANADA’S ECONOMY Ontario Genomics has released a white paper showing how engineering biology can advance Canada's knowledge-based economy and create jobs and training, while keeping biotech companies and manufacturers globally competitive. The authors of Engineering Biology: A platform technology to fuel multi-sector economic recovery and modernize bio-manufacturing in Canada point to the advantages of bringing together genomics and molecular biosciences with engineering, automation and artificial intelligence in a robust engineering biology ecosystem that can help decrease reliance on imports.
GOVERNMENT OF CANADA INVESTS IN RESEARCH ON THE EFFECTS OF OIL SPILLS ON PACIFIC SALMON Federal funding of almost $350,000 will support a two-year research project at the University of Guelph, looking at the effects of crude oil on Pacific salmon. Researchers will evaluate how young Coho salmon are impacted when exposed to diluted bitumen – the crude oil found in natural oil sands deposits. Funded under the Oceans Protection Plan, the project aims to better understand oil spill behaviour and its biological effects. The findings also will support spill response planning and preparedness activities.
MADE-IN-CANADA COVID VACCINE MOVES TO CLINICAL TRIAL Providence Therapeutics, a Canadian mRNA vaccine company, recently received Health Canada’s green light for human clinical trials of its COVID-19 vaccine. PTXCOVID19-B is a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine and is the first fully made-in-Canada COVID vaccine to reach this stage of development. Health Canada’s authorization means Phase I clinical trials will begin in early 2021. The vaccine features lipid nanoparticle technology licensed from an affiliate of Vancouverbased Genevant Sciences. The company plans to complete the trials while simultaneously establishing manufacturing to commercially produce the vaccines in Canada.
Venture company adMare BioInnovations has unveiled six Quebec-based startups under a new acceleration program supported by the Quebec Government and the City of Montreal. The fledgling companies include: Cura Therapeutics, which is developing innovative immunotherapies to cure cancer and infectious diseases; In Vivo AI, an interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers at Mila who are working on new machine learning technologies for molecular design; Modelis, which is investigating rare genetic diseases; Molecular Forecaster, a computational chemistry service provider; Targa Biomedical, which is supporting cell therapy discovery; and Trepso Therapeutics, which is focused on reversing degenerative disc and articular joint diseases.
The six Quebec-based companies include: Cura Therapeutics, In Vivo AI, Modelis, Molecular Forecaster, Targa Biomedical, Trepso Therapeutics
B I O L A B M AG.C O M
Bio-innovations accelerator announces new Quebec-based cohort
SENSOR ENABLES FAST, ACCURATE AND CHEAP DETECTION OF MULTIPLE SEPSIS BIOMARKERS
OPEN CALL FOR SCIENTISTS WHO WANT TO WORK IN SPACE
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Having a graduate degree in the sciences just might get you into space. The European Space Agency (ESA) is recruiting a new class of astronauts to travel to the International Space Station and beyond. Looking for a diverse team of people to join its space missions, the ESA is looking for both career astronauts and 20 reserve astronauts. Jan Wörner, director general of ESA, explains, “As an equal opportunity employer, it is very important to have diversity as it helps us to make things better. We would in particular encourage women to apply, because it is really interesting and supportive if we have mixed teams.” It’s not only gender diversity that ESA is encouraging. There is one vacancy for a parastronaut: an astronaut who meets all the usual criteria, but who has a physical disability that would ordinarily prevent them from applying. At a minimum, the qualifications include a Master’s degree in the natural sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics or computer sciences. A degree as an experimental test pilot or test engineer is also accepted. A PhD is an asset, but is not required. As well as a degree, applicants should have at least three years of postgraduate professional experience in a relevant field, such as working in a laboratory or hospital, or doing field research. ESA says it’s looking for people who are calm under pressure and comfortable with long absences from home and long working hours. The first missions for this class of astronauts will be on board the International Space Station. After that, there is the possibility of travelling to the Lunar Gateway orbiter and even the surface of the Moon. Applications close in May, with the final selection completed in October 2022.
Many life-threatening medical conditions, such as sepsis, which is triggered by bloodborne pathogens, cannot be detected accurately and quickly enough to initiate the right course of treatment. The challenge with rapidly diagnosing sepsis stems from the fact that measuring only one biomarker often does not allow a clear-cut diagnosis. Now, a multidisciplinary team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, in collaboration with the University of Bath, has advanced an eRapid technology as a low-cost electrochemical diagnostic sensor platform for the detection of biomarkers in whole blood. The device uses a new, inexpensive graphene nanocomposite-based surface coating that accurately detects three different sepsis biomarkers simultaneously. The researchers say it has the potential to revolutionize pointof-care diagnostics.
At a minimum, the qualifications include a Master’s degree in the natural sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics or computer sciences. A degree as an experimental test pilot or test engineer is also accepted.
Humankind’s best friend may very well be our champion in fighting COVID-19. According to University of California, Santa Barbara, professor emeritus Tommy Dickey and his collaborator, BioScent researcher Heather Junqueira, trained medical scent dogs can screen individuals who may be infected with the COVID-19 virus. The duo reviewed studies that explore the use of trained scent dogs for detecting COVID. “The most striking result is that studies have already demonstrated that dogs can identify people who are COVID-19 positive,” Dickey says of their findings. “Not only that, they can do it non-intrusively, more rapidly and with comparable, or possibly better, accuracy than our conventional detection tests.” Not surprisingly, the magic lies in the canine sense of smell, which gives dogs the ability to detect molecules in tiny concentrations, one part in a quadrillion compared to one part in one billion for humans. Further, with 125–300 million olfactory cells and a third of their brains devoted to interpreting odours, dogs are well equipped with the ability to sniff out the volatile organic compounds that indicate the presence of COVID. “The dogs are basically smelling the sweat of the person,” Dickey explains. A series of experiments by French and Lebanese researchers tested canines’ capacity to sense COVID infection. Although the virus itself has no odour,
MECHANISM BEHIND CELLULAR COMMUNICATION FOUND
The magic lies in the canine sense of smell, which gives dogs the ability to detect molecules in tiny concentrations, one part in a quadrillion compared to one part in one billion for humans.
metabolic products excreted by COVID-positive individuals through their sweat glands were detected by the 18 dogs selected for the study, with an accuracy rate of 83–100 percent after only four days of training. “One dog twice indicated positive results that could not be confirmed,” Dickey says. “Two weeks later, they found that both people who gave those samples had to be hospitalized with COVID.” Meanwhile, a German research group employed eight scent detection dogs in a randomized, double-blind controlled pilot study. The group trained the dogs for a week and then set them to sniffing 1,012 samples of saliva or tracheobronchial secretions. The dogs returned an average detection rate of 94 percent. This pilot study used positive samples from severely affected individuals and negative samples from people with no symptoms. Using dogs to detect disease is not new, with studies showing that our canine friends can detect non-small cell lung cancer, malaria, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.
A research team at the University of Gothenburg has mapped out how cells communicate in an effort to better understand how cell metabolism works. The processes where cells synchronize and coordinate their behaviour is critical for human organs to function. The interdisciplinary team looked at yeast cells, which are similar to human cells, and glycolytic oscillations – a series of chemical reactions during metabolism where the concentration of substances can pulse or oscillate. The study showed how cells that initially oscillated independently shifted to being more synchronized, creating partially synchronized populations of cells. In this way, the scientists mapped cell behaviour to help explain how other biological systems and more complex cells, like pancreatic cells, work.
B I O L A B M AG.C O M
COVID DETECTION GOING TO THE DOGS
DETECTING SINGLE MOLECULES AND DIAGNOSING DISEASES WITH TINY ANTENNAS Biomarkers like genes, proteins, hormones and lipids are found in extremely low concentration in the blood, cerebrospinal fluid, urine and various types of tissues, making them difficult to detect. In scientific discovery, many detection procedures use molecular probes, such as antibodies or short nucleic-acid sequences, which are designed to bind to specific biomarkers, but give off weak fluorescence signals. Now, scientists at Ludwig-
NEW WASTEWATER DETECTION SCREENING FOR COVID-19 CAN REACH FURTHER THAN BEFORE
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A new early-warning test for detecting SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater is ready for deployment in municipalities, colleges and industries like food processing and transportation. Developed by Neogen, a global DNA testing company, the screening test allows public health officials to systematically check more people for infections, enables routine monitoring and will help keep businesses open. With the test, Neogen can provide precise results that quickly identify new types of outbreaks, and also provide early signals of potential infections and surges within facilities. Testing sewage water is not new, but this early-warning test expands that scope with its ability to screen wastewater and consequently a broader segment of the population, as well as identifying geographic areas of infection.
The screening test allows public health officials to systematically check more people for infections, enables routine monitoring and will help keep businesses open.
Maximilians-Universität in Munich have developed molecular antennas that amplify these signals by coupling DNA probes to particles of gold or silver for greater precision and brightness. Interactions between the nanoparticles and incoming light waves intensify the local electromagnetic fields, leading to dramatically brighter fluorescence and easier detection of viruses or bacteria with antibiotic-resistance genes.
SUITCASE LAB ENABLES RAPID, PORTABLE SARS-COV-2 TESTING PCR testing for SARS-CoV2 and rapid lab results are coming to Africa. A team of scientists from Leipzig University, in collaboration with several African universities, have developed a portable minilaboratory in a suitcase, offering test results almost as good as a PCR test – and almost in real time. It’s ideal in parts of Africa where testing facilities and medical infrastructure are lacking. The small, mobile laboratory comes with a diagnostic device, solar power supply, various reagents, some reference RNA extracts and rubber gloves. It allows testing even in the most remote areas and takes only 15 minutes to deliver a result. The suitcase lab may prove crucial in stemming other infectious diseases, like Ebola.
gamechangers & groundbreaking
D I S C O V E R I E S BY JANA MANOLAKOS
As we all know too well, last year was a worldwide gamechanger because of COVID-19. The coronavirus, consisting of less than three dozen proteins, disrupted everyday life on an unprecedented level and continues to do so, even play leading research and technologies, like genetics, robotics, machine learning and nanotech, to name a few on a list that extends far beyond the fight against COVID. From tackling cancer to climate change, we look at current discoveries and inventions, from Canada and around the world, that are changing the game for science – and for humanity.
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with the arrival of vaccines. Global leaders have called into
The genome sequence that ignited unprecedented speed of discovery
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hen Edward Holmes from the University of Sydney and Yong-Zhen Zhang from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control uploaded the entire genome for SARS COVID-2 to GenBank on January 5, 2020, it triggered the greatest global clinical hunt in history – and laid a path that would change vaccine development forever. In a show of scientific collaboration and recognizing the global urgency, the pair opened access to the virus’ RNA genetic blueprint so researchers from around the world could join the quest to mitigate its assault on humanity. A week later, both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech used the sequence to begin working on vaccines, applying new gene-based technology that would allow the approval for use less than a year later. In that time, the global vaccine landscape included 173 vaccines in pre-clinical trials, 63 in human clinical trials and 15 vaccines in Phase 3 human clinical trials. Among these, researchers at the University of Waterloo recently announced they are developing a nasal spray vaccine. By November 2020, three therapeutics had been approved to treat COVID-19: dexamethasone in the U.K. and Japan; Avigan (favilavir) in China, Italy and Russia; and Veklury (remdesivir) in the U.S., Japan and Australia. Another three therapeutics received emergency use authorizations in the U.S., including convalescent plasma, Eli Lilly’s monoclonal antibody bamlanivimab and a combination of Veklury and the JAK inhibitor Olumiant (Eli Lilly). In Canada, challenged by an acute shortage of ventilators and facing supply chain disruptions, the federal government led a nationwide procurement and innovation campaign that resulted in the production of over 40,000 new ventilators and millions of personal protective equipment items. Molecular diagnostic tests for COVID-19 became available in the U.S. and Canada a few months after the outbreak in China. The global market for COVID-19 diagnostic tests, valued at $16 billion, is segmented into molecular tests, antigen tests and antibody tests. Canadian newcomers include the Spartan portable test cube, which recently received Health Canada approval, and McMaster University’s home test kit, which is in the early stages of development.
Canadian biotech firm breaks ground with the first approved COVID-19 vaccine
B.C.-based biotechnology company Acuitas Therapeutics made history last December when the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine received approval for use in Canada. Acuitas Therapeutics provided the lipid
ICSPI, world’s smallest microscope
nanoparticle (LNP) delivery system – a key element – in the development of this vaccine. Lipid nanoparticles are tiny delivery vehicles that protect the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine after it is injected. The Acuitas LNP delivery system is a key component of mRNA vaccines and is being used in several COVID-19 vaccines currently under development.
Genetic ‘scissors’ are a cutting-edge tool that rewrites the code of life
Last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to two women, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, researchers from the University of California and the Max Planck Institute, who discovered genetic “scissors” that dramatically reduced the time for modifying genes. This discovery has changed the game for new cancer therapies and may lead to eliminating inherited diseases. The CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors allow scientists to alter the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision in a much shorter timeframe. “There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to groundbreaking new medical treatments,” says Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
5 amazing ways Canadian nanotechnology changed the world
The ability to synthesize and manipulate materials at the molecular level is now possible due to breakthroughs in nanotechnology research. Since physicist Richard Feynman first raised the notion in 1959, researchers have developed materials like graphene, comprising a single layer of atoms and nanotubes that are able to deliver drugs more effectively. They also discovered that at such infinitesimally small sizes, materials behave differently; for example, they found that silver at the nano level actually works as an anti-bacterial. Small
Making handheld supercomputers a reality
Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Toronto announced that they developed atomically thin layers of crystalline silicon, called “quantum wells,” which they say could help lead to handheld supercomputers and a lightspeed fast internet in the future. “This promises to help take silicon to new applications beyond its current limitations, pushing existing transistor technology to new possibilities for microelectronics,” said lead researcher Zhenghong Lu. A quantum well is made of sandwiched layers of electrically insulating material and semiconductive films, each only a few nanometres thick. The sandwiching forces electrons to emit bright light, a behaviour that some say may revolutionize lightbased electronics, such as microchips and computer networks that use lasers and optical fibers to transmit data. What makes the silicon-based quantum wells especially invaluable is that they emit infrared light at wavelengths that are used in telecommunications, unlike other quantum well systems. While it might take up to 10 years before practical benefits from the silicon quantum wells appear, Lu hopes this discovery will lead to the development of ultrafast transistors and handheld supercomputers.
Tiniest detector has far-reaching implications
Researchers have created a portable version of a tiny, powerful laser device with potential applications in fields ranging from medical imaging to detecting hidden explosives. In a project involving the University of Waterloo and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), scientists developed a quantum cascade laser capable of operating at temperatures much higher than previously possible. That means the technology can now be used to generate terahertz radiation outside of the laboratory, since it requires only a compact thermoelectric cooler, instead of bulky cryogenic equipment.
Canadian company launches smallest atomic force microscope in the world
Since its inception in the 1980s, the atomic force microscope (AFM) has become a workhorse for nanoscience and nanotechnology researchers. At the core of any AFM are piezoelectric scanners, an ultra-sharp stylus tip and a sensing system. Launched in August 2020, ICSPI enters the market with the world’s smallest atomic force microscope, a nano-sized device that works as well as, if not better than, conventional microscopes.
Canadian Nobel Prize winner weighs in on vaccine development Prominent Canadian virologist Michael Houghton says COVID has shown us how fast we can develop vaccines when the will is there. “I think COVID – as terrible as it is, and as tragic as it is – it’s actually created a new paradigm for developing vaccines,” he says. Houghton is the Canada Excellence Research Chair Laureate in Virology, director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology and professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology. Houghton is also the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine award winner for his discovery of the hepatitis C virus – becoming only the second Canadian to receive the award after Frederick Banting in 1923. His discovery, with colleagues Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo in 1989, opened a new field of viral hepatitis research that led to improved blood safety, and hepatitis C treatment to the point where the viral infection can now be cured in virtually all patients. Houghton was recruited to the University of Alberta in 2010 as the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology at the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology. Two years later, he and his team developed a vaccine for cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease and liver cancer. He recently began leading an effort to produce a vaccine for COVID-19, and Houghton also created a successful vaccine for the SARS-CoV-1 virus in 2004, but it was never needed because SARS disappeared.
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but mighty nanotechnologies contribute to almost every field of science, including physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, computer science and engineering since first applied in the early ’90s. In recent years, nanotechnologies have been used in human health, leading to next-generation medicines and surgical materials.
Managing allergic reactions and inflammatory responses
For Marianna Kulka, biomedical nanotechnologies team lead at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), figuring out what leads to allergic reactions in the body is made that much easier by nanotechnology. At the same time as Kulka was examining how certain receptors in humans might trigger allergic inflammation, a chemical engineering team from the University of Alberta was working on self-assembled nanomaterials for her study. With these material designs and the NRC’s cell culture system, the researchers discovered that a receptor called MRGPRX2 influences mast cell activation and inflammatory reactions. Kolka suggests, “We believe that finding an inhibitor that blocks MRGPR activation could be beneficial to treating a range of other situations including wound healing, antibiotic resistance and bacterial infections.”
Consortium will help advance quantum sensing and quantum computing
Academic and industrial partners from Canada and the U.K. are joining forces to create an advanced manufacturing toolkit for quantum sensing and quantum computing. The partnership between Université de Sherbrooke and Britain’s Oxford Instruments Nanotechnology explores complex hybrid systems composed of superconducting circuits and spin qubits. The goal is to form the next generation of quantum devices, like quantum sensors, and the manufacture of superconducting qubits, in Sherbrooke and in collaborating institutions in Canada.
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Robots are transformers, but not in the way Hollywood blockbusters portray them. Autonomous, intelligent and sometimes even lifelike, nowadays you’ll find “bots” of varying shapes, sizes and cognitive abilities that are making a difference on disaster recovery teams, boosting human abilities and enabling exploration into the deepest corners of the cosmos.
New application software is the ‘brain’ to Canadarm’s ‘brawn’
Since its installation on the International Space Station in 2001, the Canadarm2 has performed hundreds of tasks, including assembling the station’s modules and lending astronauts a hand during spacewalks. Until now, the 17-metrelong arm has been controlled by a joint team of robotics flight controllers working in tandem from Canadian Space Agency (CSA) headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec, and NASA facilities in Houston. Late last year, the robotic arm’s sequence of tasks advanced with the introduction of the Mobile Servicing System Application Computer (MAC). This new software allows Canadarm2 to operate autonomously – powering up, moving
Canadarm2. Image: MD Robotics Ltd.
freely in open space, latching onto a grapple fixture and powering down. CSA engineers also have begun to test the MAC with Dextre, the space station’s robot “handyman,” using the software to allow the most sophisticated space robot ever built to grasp and release fixtures and proceed autonomously through a power cycle. More testing is planned for the coming months. The technology and expertise behind MAC represents a groundbreaking advance for Canadian space robotics on the station and beyond.
Exploring uncharted ocean depths
Last summer, Kraken Robotics received almost $3M from the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program to take its ThunderFish XL Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) to new depths. The AUV represents the next generation in deep sea robotic vehicles, with its larger size, longer mission endurance, increased depth rating and larger payload capacity. Unlike similar vehicles, ThunderFish XL uses onboard AI to integrate its functions and sensors. It’s able to descend up to 6,000 metres. Karl Kenny, Kraken’s President and CEO, says, “By combining our advanced sensor technologies with cuttingedge artificial intelligence algorithms, it is our objective to deliver a cost-effective AUV solution that is truly autonomous, as opposed to being simply automated.”
Healthcare robots combat COVID
Since the semi-humanoid robot named Pepper first welcomed visitors to Toronto’s Humber River Hospital 10 years ago,
AI-driven materials scientist that is capable of designing, performing and learning from experiments efficiently and autonomously. UBC chemist Curtis Berlinguette – whose lab developed the platform in conjunction with his colleague Jason Hein and the University of Toronto’s Alán Aspuru-Guzik (interviewed in the Winter 2018–19 issue of BioLab Business) – says, “Our project represents a bold initiative that will accelerate the discovery and development of new clean energy technologies by leveraging cutting-edge robotics equipped with artificial intelligence. We’re very excited to be at the forefront of this innovative movement in materials science.”
Robotic swarm swims like a school of fish
robots have been roaming Canadian hospitals, prized for their precision and accuracy. It’s already been a decade since doctors at Montreal General Hospital oversaw the world’s first fully robotic prostatectomy, and now, for the first time in Canada, a disinfection robot is using artificial intelligence to sanitize healthcare facilities. York University assistant professor Irfan Aslam is the infection control lead at Toronto’s Mon Sheong Home for the Aged, where an autonomous robot has helped keep the coronavirus at bay. Manufactured by Global DWS, the robot was designed to use UV light and disinfectant to sanitize and clean the facility. This in itself is not new – hospitals have been using robot and machine technology as disinfecting tools for some time, but it’s the first time a disinfectant robot has been powered by AI and machine learning. The robot spends half a day “learning” or mapping the facility through custom vision, voice interaction and autonomous navigation. When deployed to clean, it uses a combination of 360-degree UV-C light and disinfectant spray to clean all surfaces, deactivating any viral microbes.
An AI-driven materials scientist
An $8M investment at the end of 2018 by the Canadian government went to develop a first-of-its-kind robotic platform called the Autonomous Discovery Accelerator for Materials Innovation (ADA), which uses artificial intelligence to accelerate the development process for new energy-efficient materials. Funded through Natural Resources Canada’s Energy Innovation Program, chemists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) built the platform, which is essentially an
New intelligent, mobile robot scientist carries out experiments by itself
Last summer, a team from Liverpool University introduced an intelligent robot scientist they suggest may revolutionize laboratory research. As the first of its kind, the robot makes its own decisions about which chemistry experiments to perform, and it already has discovered a new catalyst. University of Liverpool scientist Benjamin Burger, who built and programmed the robot, explains, “The biggest challenge was to make the system robust. To work autonomously over multiple days, making thousands of delicate manipulations, the failure rate for each task needs to be very low. But once this is done, the robot makes far fewer mistakes than a human operator.” In just eight days, the robot conducted 688 experiments, and worked for 172 out of 192 hours; it made 319 moves, completed 6,500 manipulations and travelled a total distance of 2.17 km. While typically laboratory robots are hardwired to carry out a single task, this machine independently performs a range of activities, such as weighing out solids, dispensing liquids, removing air from vessels, running the catalytic reaction and quantifying the reaction products. It uses a combination of
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Blueswarm fish Image: Self-organizing Systems Research Group
Watching schools of fish swim in synchronized fashion has inspired some scientists to pursue advancements in robotics. A team of researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed robots that move collectively like a school of fish, without any external control. It is the first time that researchers have demonstrated complex collective behaviours with implicit coordination in underwater robots. Dubbed Blueswarm, the school of robotic fish is able to move in three-dimensional spaces, such as air and water, through an onboard vision-based coordination system based on blue LED lights. Each underwater robot, called a Bluebot, is equipped with two cameras and three LED lights. The onboard, fish-lens cameras detect the LEDs of neighbouring Bluebots and use a custom algorithm to determine their distance, direction and heading. Each Bluebot reacts to the positions of neighbouring bots, calculating the distances and modifying their motion according to a programmed direction.
laser scanning coupled with touch feedback for positioning. The machine’s “brain” uses a search algorithm to navigate a 10-dimensional space of more than 98 million candidate experiments, deciding the best experiment to do next based on the outcomes of the previous ones. By doing this, it autonomously discovered a catalyst that is six times more active, with no additional guidance from the research team.
Intelligent Systems Inspired by the human brain, scientists have long sought to create learning machines, intelligent systems that would make life better with the ability to sift through an endless archive of data and find patterns that could take someone a lifetime to discover. In 2017, the Government of Canada asked CIFAR to develop and lead a $125M Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the world’s first national AI strategy. Since then, Canadian companies have jumped on board, rounding out Canada’s AI ecosystem, along with government, public-sector organizations and the country’s three national AI institutes: Amii in Edmonton, Mila in Montreal and the Vector Institute in Toronto. These startups are pushing boundaries in neo-biotechnology, quantum computing, AI model development, personalized learning, energy grid optimization, deep neural networks optimization and protein therapeutics. According to Ottawa-based Global Advantage, a strategy and data analytics firm, there are more than 650 active AI businesses in Canada, and Toronto has the densest cluster of AI startups in the world. Numerous multinational enterprises have established AI-specific research and development centres in Canada (almost all of them in Toronto). BIOLAB BUSINESS VO L U M E 3 6, I S S U E 1 • 2 0 2 1
Last fall, Montreal-based AI startup Deeplite announced a research partnership with Mila, one of the three academic research institutions across Canada dedicated to advancing AI. Deeplite will be working on research and talent development initiatives exploring deep learning techniques to advance the accessibility and affordability of AI in everyday life. This collaboration will focus on designing faster and more efficient deep neural networks, making them applicable to real-world applications while reducing the environmental footprint and resource demands of deploying AI solutions. “Accelerating time-to-market for accurate computer vision and perception AI models is fundamental to realizing the value of many diverse applications that will have a positive impact on our everyday life,” says Yoshua Bengio, scientific director of Mila. “Addressing the challenge of running complex and sizeable deep neural networks on limited computer power is crucial, and we’re excited to support Deeplite’s unique
technology strategy and the innovation that will result from this partnership.” Deeplite was recently named to the CB Insights AI 100 list of the world’s most promising and innovative private AI startups.
Last fall, Toronto-based Xanadu, a quantum technology company, teamed up with MaRS and the Creative Destruction Lab to establish a quantum network that will help scientists develop new kinds of applications in quantum cryptography, communications and computation. While the Canada Quantum Network (CQN) is a first for Canada, similar networks can be found in the U.S., China, the Netherlands and the U.K. Yung Wu, CEO of MaRS, explains, “The development of quantum computers is accelerating and quantum networks are required to take advantage of quantum computing. The creation of the CQN allows Canada to retain and grow the talent pool for quantum applications and is an important cornerstone in the development of the next big industry in Canada.” The next step in Xanadu’s mission is to build quantum computers that are useful and available to people everywhere. Founded in 2016, Xanadu leads the development of Pennylane, an open-source software library for quantum machine learning and application development.
Deep learning projects often suffer from lengthy cycles and high costs due to the cumbersome, guesswork-driven nature of key processes. Challenges are often compounded by the difficulty of identifying errors, biases, data problems and other issues, and of validating the trustworthiness of the deep learning solution being built. Now, Waterloo-based DarwinAI’s technology is able to clarify the clutter of data and show how neural networks make decisions. The company’s software platform, GenSynth, equips developers and data scientists with a tool that can validate their work.
Cyclica is enhancing drug discovery and creating medicines with greater precision through big data, predictive analytics and cloud-based, AI-assisted drug discovery. The company recently released results of a collaboration with AstraZeneca where MatchMaker, its deep learning polypharmacology engine, correctly identified the off-targets of small molecules. It even outperformed mass spectrometry, an industry standard for target identification, at a fraction of the time and cost. MatchMaker powers Ligand Express, a cloud-based platform for proteome-wide probing of drug-target interactions.
Last fall, Toronto-based Deep Genomics teamed up with U.S. pharma giant BioMarin to explore drug candidates for four
Quantum Information and Computing While all eyes are turned to the race for the most powerful quantum computer, other scientists are quietly working to develop components that will leverage these computational giants.
An international research team, including University of Calgary quantum physicists, has taken a big step toward building a high-performing, scalable “quantum internet” which would dramatically change the fields of communication, data storage, precision sensing and computing. The proposed network stores information in quantum bits and then uses light beams to teleport them over long distances. “In this new study, we demonstrate the quantum teleportation of photonic quantum states,” says study coauthor Daniel Oblak. “This work meets the technological benchmarks required for a quantum internet system to a very high degree.” The research team achieved sustained, longdistance teleportation through 44 km of optical fibre, using photon qubits. The measurements were performed using the California Institute of Technology and the Fermilab Quantum Network teleportation system test beds, part of Caltech’s multidisciplinary, multi-institutional public-private research program on Intelligent Quantum Networks and Technologies (IN-Q-NET), supported by AT&T. University of Calgary physicists also are developing components for a quantum network, including quantum memory which can store quantum information.
Physicists at the University of Alberta have developed a new way to build quantum memory that could help pave the way for a next-generation quantum internet that is more secure, while taking advantage of existing fibre-optic cables. “We’ve developed a new way to store pulses of light, down to the single-photon level in clouds of ultracold rubidium atoms, and to later retrieve them on demand by shining a ‘control’ pulse of light,” explains Lindsay LeBlanc, assistant professor of physics and Canada Research Chair in Ultracold Gases for Quantum Simulation. LeBlanc conducted the research with post-doctoral fellow Erhan Saglamyurek.
Quantum memory is an important component of quantum networks, serving much the same role as hard drives in today’s computers. The new method developed by LeBlanc and Saglamyurek, which is best suited for applications requiring high-speed operations, also has considerably fewer technical requirements than common quantum storage techniques. “The amount of power needed is significantly lower than current options, and these reduced requirements make it easier to implement in other labs,” Saglamyurek says. The discovery will allow for the crucial scaling up of quantum technologies, which has proven the biggest challenge to date in the emerging field.
New Materials Discovery Graphene
The gold rush for graphene started when the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, for their 2004 discovery of a method to produce near-monolayers of graphene, today known as the “cellophanetape.” The method sparked high interest as it enabled scientists to conduct a new generation of research on graphene, which was marked as a “wonder material” for being incredibly strong, light and flexible. It was expected that graphene molecular film would revolutionize research materials, electronic and communications equipment, and a wide range of industrial activities.
Single-atom-thick new materials
A study by a team of researchers from Canada’s Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, McGill and Lakehead universities and Italy’s Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche could usher in a revolutionary development in materials science, leading to big changes in the way companies create modern electronics. The researchers developed twodimensional materials that are a single atomic layer thick, which had been predicted only theoretically, until now. The materials promise greater functionality beyond that of graphene.
Canadian physicists discover new properties of superconductivity
New findings from an international collaboration led by Canadian scientists from the University of Waterloo may eventually lead to a theory of how superconductivity gets triggered at the atomic level, a key step in understanding how to harness the potential of materials that could provide lossless energy storage, levitating trains and ultra-fast supercomputers.
Harnessing AI for the next generation of materials
A new research consortium – featuring industry, academia and
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rare diseases. Deep Genomics’ platform, AI Workbench, will identify and validate target drug candidates that BioMarin can advance in preclinical and clinical development. AI Workbench combines deep learning, automation, advanced biomedical knowledge and massive amounts of data to accurately identify targetable molecular mechanisms and guide the discovery and development of oligonucleotide therapies.
government – will use the power of artificial intelligence to boost design of next generation, high-performance materials. The Alliance for AI-Accelerated Materials Discovery, which launched last September, includes leading researchers from the University of Toronto (UofT), McMaster University and the National Research Council of Canada, as well as industrial partners LG and Total. The goal is to discover advanced materials to convert atmospheric CO2 into usable energy and to enhance the performance of consumer products. They believe that emerging tools from the field of machine learning could play a key role in speeding up the search for new high-performance materials. Properly trained algorithms can sort through vast libraries of simulated materials and recognize promising combinations in a fraction of the time, pointing researchers in fruitful directions. When combined with advanced robotics, this enables the use of highthroughput screening, which can fabricate and test many different materials more rapidly. “The Materials Project, which aims to provide a computational library of known materials, currently predicts properties for over 700,000 of them,” says team member Alán Aspuru-Guzik, with UofT’s departments of chemistry and computer science, adding, “But those materials can be combined in myriad ways. There are simply too many possible permutations to try them all.”
New materials for blood vessels
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Researchers in China and Switzerland have developed electronic blood vessels that can be tuned to address subtle changes in the body after implantation. The blood vessels, made of a metal-polymer conductor membrane that’s flexible and biodegradable, mimic natural blood vessels and were able to effectively replace key arteries in rabbits. “We take the natural blood vessel-mimicking structure and go beyond it by integrating more comprehensive electrical functions that are able to provide further treatments, such as gene therapy and electrical stimulation,” says lead author Xingyu Jiang, a researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology and the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in China. Previous research developed a variety of tissue-engineered blood vessels that provide mechanical support for hardto-treat blockages of tiny blood vessels in patients with cardiovascular disease. But they could not proactively assist in regenerating blood vessel tissue and, unlike natural tissue, caused inflammation. Jiang and his team fabricated biodegradable electronic blood vessels using a cylindrical rod to roll up a metalpolymer conductor membrane made from poly(L-lactideco-ε-caprolactone). They showed that, in the lab, electrical stimulation from the blood vessel increased endothelial cells in a wound healing model, suggesting that electrical stimulation could facilitate the formation of new cells lining the inside of blood vessel. The researchers also integrated the blood vessels’ flexible circuitry with an electroporation device,
which applies an electrical field to make cell membranes more permeable, and observed that the combined technologies successfully delivered green fluorescent protein DNA into three kinds of blood vessel cells in the lab. While these electronic blood vessels demonstrated promise as surrogate arteries in rabbits, Jiang acknowledges that more work must be done before the technology will be ready for human trials, including long-term safety tests in larger cohorts of rabbits and other animals. “In the future, optimizations need to be taken by integrating it with minimized devices, such as minimized batteries and built-in control systems, to make all the functional parts fully implantable and even fully biodegradable in the body,” says Jiang. The researchers also hope that this technology could someday be combined with AI to collect and store detailed information on an individual’s blood velocity, blood pressure and blood glucose levels.
Nano-thin material able to self-power electronic devices
A new type of ultra-efficient, nano-thin material could advance self-powered electronics, wearable technologies and even deliver pacemakers powered by heart beats. The flexible and printable piezoelectric material, which can convert mechanical pressure into electrical energy, has been developed by an Australian research team led by RMIT University. The material is 100,000 times thinner than a human hair and 800 percent more efficient than other piezoelectrics based on similar non-toxic materials. Researchers say it can be fabricated easily through a cost-effective and commercially scalable method, using liquid metals. The material’s potential biomedical applications include internal biosensors and self-powering biotechnologies, such as devices that convert blood pressure into a power source for pacemakers. The nano-thin piezoelectrics also could be used in the development of smart oscillation sensors to detect faults in infrastructure like buildings and bridges, smart running shoes for charging mobile phones and smart footpaths that harness energy from footsteps.
New study that pits diamonds against graphite changes content in chemistry textbooks
A recent study led by Mary Anne White, a Dalhousie chemist and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, answered a fundamental question concerning a basic property of carbon: Which is lower in energy and therefore, more stable – graphite or diamond? “Graphite and diamond are two different forms of carbon, and it has long been thought that graphite is more stable, except at high pressure, in which case diamond is more stable,” says White. If graphite is more stable than diamond, it won’t turn into diamond, but that diamond could turn into graphite. This relative stability plays an important role in understanding
Microscopy Let there be light
Since the earliest microscopes, scientists have been on a quest to build instruments with finer and finer resolution to image tinier and tinier environments. They were challenged by a light phenomenon known as the diffraction limit, which prevented optical microscopes from bringing into focus anything smaller than half the wavelength of visible light (around 200 nanometres, or billionths of a metre). Now a team of researchers, co-led by the Berkeley Lab and Columbia Engineering, have developed a new class of crystalline material called avalanching nanoparticles (ANPs) that, when used as a microscopic probe, overcomes the diffraction limit without heavy computation or superresolution microscopes. The researchers say that the ANPs will boost high-resolution, real-time bio-imaging of a cell’s organelles and proteins, as well as the development of ultrasensitive optical sensors, among other advancements.
Advancing electron microscopy and networked research
Last July, two McMaster-based national research facilities received a combined $4.2M from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). The facilities – the Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy (CCEM) and the Canadian Research Data Centre Network (CRDCN) – are funded through CFI’s Major Science Initiatives Fund, which is designed to keep Canada’s large, complex research facilities on the cutting edge to support the Canadian and global research communities. The CCEM – which houses a suite of some of the world’s most advanced imaging tools, capable of measuring materials and chemistry at ultra-high resolution – received just over $2M. Similarly, the CRDCN – a partnership between a consortium of Canadian universities and Statistics Canada, and co-funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council – received close to $2.2M in additional funding.
Crowning the most powerful microscopes in the world
Hitachi High Technologies in Japan recently unveiled the highest-resolution microscope in the world, which allows magnification up to 20 million times greater than what is visible to the human eye. Two other incredibly powerful microscopes, including one
in Canada, are revealing the previously unseen. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) is home to the TEAM 0.5, the most powerful transmission electron microscope in the world, with a resolution of half an angstrom (one ten-millionth of a millimetre). That’s narrower than a single hydrogen atom. Canada’s McMaster University has two massively powerful Titan 80-300 electron microscopes capable of imaging down to about one angstrom.
Battery storage Canada’s foremost authority on battery technology
According to Jeffrey Dahn, a lithium-ion pioneer and the NSERC/Tesla Canada Industrial Research Chair, Canada’s reputation for turning out top talent, innovation and products puts this country at the top of the world’s leaderboard for battery technologies. As Canada’s foremost expert on lithiumion batteries, the Dalhousie University researcher’s name is synonymous with battery technology. The world’s first alkaline and lithium batteries were invented by Canadian Lewis Urry, in 1954. In 1977, the world’s first rechargeable lithium-metal battery was commercialized in B.C. by Moli Energy Ltd. – the company of Dahn’s early mentor, Rudi Haering. Since then, Canadian battery experts have gone abroad to work at leading global tech companies. Dahn and his team are exploring longevity in batteries, something that recently caught the eye of the Tesla car company, with whom the team is now partnered.
Female-led chemistry lab pushes power beyond lithium-ion batteries
Waterloo chemistry professor and Canada Research Chair in Solid State Materials, Linda Nazar is hunting for batteries that perform even better than the current lithium-ion batteries. She says, “We’re in a global climate change crisis and need to have a fundamental shift in the way we look at energy.” Nazar believes this type of research – energy storage materials and devices designed for intermittent renewable power sources, such as solar and wind, and for electric, plug-in electric, fuel-cell and hybrid electric vehicles – is “absolutely vital for this planet, for life on Earth.” By developing new material structures and modifying them at the nano level, her group has developed a new material, sodium ion fluorophosphate, that could replace more costly lithium metal phosphate materials. A patent is pending for that discovery.
Gender Shifts/Women in Stem Gender bias in the granting process
For a long time, Canada has been touted as a world leader in championing the advancement of women and equality in
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topics as diverse as chemical reactions to the geologic history of metamorphic rocks on Earth and other rocky planets. “This is a crucial discovery, as accurate knowledge of the details of the stability of diamond relative to graphite underpins accurate prediction of many chemical reactions and properties. As a result of this study, numbers in high-school chemistry textbooks will have to be modified,” White notes.
all aspects of society. But for Alice Aiken, Dalhousie’s vice president of research and innovation, while Dalhousie – and Canada in general – actively encourages and supports the involvement of women in research, she believes women are still underrepresented and underfavoured in the granting process. Aiken says women often do research to have impact and make a difference, but that Canada currently focuses too much attention on measuring traditional markers of research success, such as grants and number of publications. “What we don’t have are perfect measures for measuring impact and having impact with your research, which is where more women tend to work, ” she says, “and I think we really need to think about what those metrics are and how do we promote them as equally valuable.” It is clear that momentum is building to empower women in research, Aiken notes, particularly in light of Donna Strickland’s recent Nobel Prize in Physics – a first for a Canadian woman.
Paving the way for female chemists
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Elaheh Khozeimeh Sarbisheh wants to be a role model for young women in science. She’s a postdoctoral fellow with the Eric Price Research Group in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Science, University of Saskatchewan (USask), and is working on how to improve radiopharmaceuticals – the radioactive drugs that can be used to detect or treat cancers. “I have been interested in cancer research my whole life,” says Khozeimeh Sarbisheh. “Growing up in Iran, I worked as a teen volunteer at a charity that tried to help cancer patients. I saw a lot of patients in a lot of pain. I thought of going into pharmacy – but if you want to specialize in making drugs, you need to understand chemistry. That’s why I decided to study chemistry, and that’s why I am so passionate about my research.” Sarbisheh’s passion for chemistry flows into her work with the university’s Women in Chemistry (WiC), a group she started three years ago with chemistry PhD candidate Kelly Summers, and with mentorship from Prof. Ingrid Pickering. It’s part of the Canadian Women in Chemistry (CWIC) Network, which aims to promote inclusivity, equity and diversity in the chemical sciences by connecting WiC groups across the country. There are currently 11 members at USask-WiC, many of whom have joined to meet and learn from other female scientists, and to feel more empowered – especially since the field is still dominated by men. Groups like WiC are working to address the barriers and discrimination faced by women in science. Khozeimeh Sarbisheh notes that working in chemistry “makes having a baby very challenging” for women. “While pursuing their education – especially as a chemist working in a laboratory full of chemicals – they cannot even think about having a baby,” she says. “And, after finishing
their PhD and a couple of years of post-doctoral experience – when they are at the beginning of their professional scientific career for most of the women – they are in their mid- or latethirties.” Accommodating motherhood is a challenge in many industries, but especially this one.
Biodiversity and Climate Change
Canada’s climate change warriors are battling to save the planet The climate Doomsday Clock is ticking faster than first thought
This past December, McGill researchers introduced a new way to predict global warming more accurately. Using historical data, they predict that the threshold for dangerous global warming will likely be crossed between 2027 and 2042 – a much narrower window than first thought, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s estimated at between now and 2052. “Climate skeptics have argued that global warming projections are unreliable because they depend on faulty supercomputer models. While these criticisms are unwarranted, they underscore the need for independent and different approaches to predicting future warming,” says study co-author Bruno Tremblay, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at McGill University.
National research institute launches to bring clarity to Canada’s climate choices
A league of academics and policy experts gathered this January to launch the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, a new national research body to “provide independent and expertdriven analysis to help Canada move toward clean growth in all sectors and regions of the country. ” As a first step, the new institute released a report, “Charting Our Course,” which takes stock of Canada’s policy landscape and puts forward ideas on improvement. Kathy Bardswick, president and CEO, explains, “There are no easy paths to achieve the transformative results necessary to thrive in the face of climate change, but Canadians are resourceful, practical and innovative, and we are already making progress. By drawing on experience and expertise from across the country, we can get further, faster and help decision-makers successfully steer the country toward a lowcarbon, resilient and prosperous future.”
Light, leaves and a high-tech library
At the Canadian Airborne Biodiversity Observatory (CABO), a multinational group of researchers are working on using spectranomics as a tool for environmental studies, just as genomics is used to study genes. Spectranomics explores the
and the senior author on the paper. “By including oxygen, this model stands apart by predicting observed patterns of variation in metabolic rate among fishes worldwide than current theories, which focus primarily on body size and temperature.”
unique combination of light wavelengths reflected by a specific plant’s leaves. The researcher are using it to build a central library of “spectral barcodes” for Canadian plant species from various major ecosystems, such as forests, grasslands, tundra and peatlands. This high-tech library of Canadian plants also could be used by future environmental researchers as they monitor the effects of human activity on ecosystems in Canada and around the world.
New tool gauges the impact of warming waters on fish
As oceans warm, scientists have long suspected that higher water temperatures make it more difficult for large fish to breath. Now, an international team of researchers from McGill, Montana and Radboud universities have developed a model to determine exactly how water temperature, oxygen availability, body size and activity affect metabolic demand for oxygen in fish. The model is based on physicochemical principles that look at oxygen consumption and diffusion at the gill surface in relation to water temperature and body size. Predictions were compared against actual measurements from over 200 fish species where oxygen consumption rates were measured at different water temperatures and across individuals of different body sizes. It became evident that fish will need more oxygen than their gills can extract from warming water. “Water temperature is already rising worldwide as a consequence of climate change, and many fish species need to cope with this rapid temperature change, either by migrating toward colder regions or by adopting different life strategies such as shrinking in size over generations in order to avoid respiratory constraints,” says Art Woods, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Montana,
Borealis AI, a research centre created by RBC, is working with Mila, the Montreal-based AI institute, on a climate change project. With support from Borealis, Mila is developing a tool that uses AI technology to produce street view images that show the potential effects of extreme weather. “Climate change is humanity’s biggest crisis, and our hope is that we can apply machine learning to raise awareness regarding the future impacts of climate change, making it more concrete and more personalized, and ultimately trigger collective action,” says Yoshua Bengio, founder and scientific director of Mila and professor in the Department of Computer Science and Operations Research at Université de Montréal. When developed, the tool will allow users to input a location and see a visual projection of the potential effects of extreme weather events at street level, raising awareness and making these effects more visceral than traditional aerial and satellite images.
Lubicon Lake Band Piitapan Solar Project
After an oil spill on its traditional territory in 2011, the Lubicon Lake Band decided to chart a new course for its community. With hopes of a cleaner future, the band built the Piitapan Solar Project, an 80-panel installation. Today, the Piitapan project feeds clean green energy into the community’s health centre, and ensures renewable energy will be available for the community’s future generations. Initial funding for the 80-panel installation was supported by the customers of Bullfrog Power, a Canadian clean energy provider. “This solar panel system can shine like a beacon, showing that this is the way of the future,” says Melina LaboucanMassimo, an environmental advocate and member of the community. A Lubicon Cree from Northern Alberta, she has worked on social, environmental and climate justice issues for the past 15 years. Currently a fellow at the David Suzuki Foundation, Laboucan-Massimo’s research is focused on climate change, Indigenous knowledge and renewable energy.
B I O L A B M AG.C O M
Melina Laboucan-Massimo helped launch the solar project for the community of Little Buffalo, Alberta. Image: Melina Laboucan-Massimo
RBC’s Borealis AI joins Mila in climate change fight
Dr. Lucy Gilbert
Catching cancer before it happens
BIOLAB BUSINESS VO L U M E 3 6, I S S U E 1 • 2 0 2 1
BY ROBERT PRICE
Named one of this year’s Top 25 Women of Influence, Dr. Lucy Gilbert wants to revolutionize women’s health – and there is a good chance she will.
ilbert has invented a new genomics uterine pap test that can detect ovarian and endometrial cancers before symptoms show. Called DOvEEgene (Diagnosing Ovarian and Endometrial Cancers Early), the test has potential to save the lives of millions of women. Following delays caused by COVID-19 lockdowns, DOvEEgene enters Phase 3 trials this May, with funding provided through grants made available by Genome Canada and Genome Quebec. The trial aims to test more than 3,200 women. Gilbert is a professor in the Department of Oncology and Obstetrics at McGill University, a professor in the Department of Gynecology and director of the Women’s Health Research Unit of the McGill University Health Centre. Originally from India, Gilbert grew up in a family of seven children – all girls, and all doctors. She relocated to Singapore and England before settling in Montreal in 2001, where Gilbert developed her method to detect women’s cancers before they start.
WHAT MADE YOUR TECHNOLOGY POSSIBLE? BECAUSE IT SEEMS LIKE A MIRACLE. Truly – but as I say, genius is 90 percent persistence and hard work, and just 10 percent inspiration. Traditionally we have thought that to detect cancer you need a lump, you need symptoms. When I started this work in 2008, we were like everybody; we were looking at the ovaries with ultrasound, blood tumour markers, hoping to get it early. But if you wait for it to become a lump, it’s too late. If you wait for it to get into the bloodstream, it’s too late. What is a good way forward? I linked up with a clever scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, Bert Vogelstein. We published in Science
Translational Medicine the concept of leveraging the identification of somatic mutations to detect ovarian cancer. The advantage that we have [over other cancer researchers] is that we could access the uterus easily. It’s not like the pancreas, or the liver, which is all hidden inside. We have a fraction of the money that Vogelstein has. We have a fraction of the network. But what we have in Montreal, and in Canada, is a public healthcare system that’s quite uniform and offers equitable access to all people. It’s much easier for us to do clinical research, to get some things to the clinical front quicker. Because as a clinician, women trust me, and when I say ‘I’m looking at this, do you mind taking part in this?’, they take part. And they say, we want to – I say, it may not help you, but it may help other women in future. And they say, yes, we want to help other women. Canadian women are altruistic.
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HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE NAMED TO THE WOMEN OF INFLUENCE LIST? It feels very good, and the reason is that we rely on good news stories to get this out. Information is the key. Many people are frightened of the word “cancer.” They believe that if you acknowledge it and try to get tested, it’s almost inviting bad karma or something of that sort. And on another level, I believe it sends a good message out to women and to minorities and to everybody, that what we do is important – it’s important to Canadians.
Yearly projections estimate more than 10% of cancer cases among Canadian women will be uterine, cervical or ovarian.
2021 WOMEN OF INFLUENCE Approximately 1 in 2 Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime; about 1 in 4 Canadians will die of cancer. CAN THE TECHNOLOGY THAT YOU'VE CREATED HELP TO DETECT OTHER KINDS OF CANCERS? Using molecular somatic mutations has been around for ages. It’s been leveraged for other kinds of cancers. Where I think we have an advantage: The concepts are all very good, but once you have a concept, you must have the sheer understanding of the disease and the sheer number of women to get the clinical trials done. And the fact that I’m a scientist-clinician working in a public healthcare system in a place like Canada, that has a singlepayer healthcare system – it’s this combination that has helped us to bring it from a concept to be tested in the context of a trial. BIOLAB BUSINESS VO L U M E 3 6, I S S U E 1 • 2 0 2 1
IF YOU HAD THE POWER TO CHANGE ONE THING THAT STIFLES EITHER SCIENTIFIC CREATIVITY OR SCIENTIFIC BUSINESS, WHAT WOULD IT BE? Bureaucracy – honestly, bureaucracy. We need people at the helm who have three qualities: You need intelligence, you need pragmatism and you need kindness. If you just have intelligence, you end up with sub-situations. And I think a good example of that is Mitch McConnell in the U.S. He’s very, very, very smart, but if you don’t use your cleverness for something for the good of all people, then it’s wasted cleverness. But if you are kind but not clever and pragmatic, you can’t get anywhere. And we need people at the top who would override that, you know, sense of obstruction. Have courage to say: No, this is important, we will take a few risks. That’s what you need.
Among the 25 women chosen this year, several are leaders in STEM – and one is even a high-school student. Born in Iran and raised in Dubai, Azadeh Dastmalchi is the CEO of VitalTracer, a Canadian medical startup that designs smart wearable medical devices. A PhD candidate at Ottawa University, she obtained her MSc from the same university in Biomedical Engineering. In the last 12 years, her main field of research has been designing and developing medical devices, particularly vital sign monitoring and applied AI on bio-signals. In 2020, Dastmalchi introduced a medical-grade smartwatch called VitalTracer. In addition to taking a wearer’s pulse, it uses biosensors and machine-learning algorithms to measure blood pressure, respiratory rate, blood oxygen levels, body temperature and the heart’s electrical signals. According to Dastmalchi, the device can help detect symptoms of illnesses – such as COVID-19 – earlier. Born in Iran and raised in Canada, Dr. Gelareh Zadeh is a professor at the Department of Surgery, University of Toronto, Head of Neurosurgery at University Health Network (UHN), leads Surgical Oncology at Princess Margaret Cancer Center, is a senior scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Research Institute, and is co-director of the Krembil Brain Institute at UHN. But her newest title added to the list was perhaps her most impressive: Zadeh was appointed the Dan Family Chair in the Division of Neurosurgery at the University of Toronto in August 2020, making her the first woman to helm one of the largest neurosurgical programs in the world and the first to be named neurosurgery chair in Canada. Roughly 11 percent of neurosurgeons in Canada are women. Science lover and Fort McMurray, Alberta, resident Maryam Tsegaye decided to enter the 2020 Breakthrough Junior Challenge – a prestigious international competition for high-school students – on a whim. The contest called for a three-minute video explainer of a complex scientific concept, so using dice, music and stick figure drawings, Tsegaye playfully broke down quantum tunnelling and made it comprehensible for just about anyone. The firstever Canadian student to win the international prize, Tsegaye was awarded with a scholarship valued at US$250,000 to fund her education, US$100,000 to fund her high school’s new science lab and US$50,000 for her science teacher.
A cure for mental illness? Psychedelics company Numinus is betting on it
B I O L A B M AG.C O M
BY TRACEY LINDEMAN
BIOLAB BUSINESS VO L U M E 3 6, I S S U E 1 • 2 0 2 1
sychedelic drugs have been on one long, strange trip. From ritualistic and medicinal uses of peyote, ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms in Indigenous cultures throughout the Americas, to the CIA’s “mind control” experiments inside of MK-ULTRA, to the “turn on, tune in and drop out” era of recreational LSD, to now – the cutting edge of science in treating mental illness. Not only treating mental illness, in fact, but maybe even curing it completely. That’s the next phase of the psychedelics journey, in which Canada is taking its first few, cautious steps. “The end goal is psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy,” says Sharan Sidhu, science officer and general manager of Numinus Wellness, one of the Canadian private-sector players exploring the therapeutic elements of psychedelics. With its home base in Vancouver and the newly acquired Mindspace Wellbeing psychology clinic in Montreal, the company is hoping to pioneer the use of mushrooms, ketamine, MDMA and other drugs to help solve the growing mental health crisis. If it can fully realize its vision, Numinus also will become a drug testing service provider to other companies in the expanding psychedelics arena, says Sidhu – “So really, setting the stage and setting the standard, while working with Health Canada to show them how it can be done... to be able to provide safe, effective therapy, but not at a huge cost.”
Psychedelics show promise
Health Canada is carefully recognizing the potential of psychedelics, especially when it comes to psilocybin. Last August, it gave four palliative care patients permission to use mushrooms. Four months later, it gave exemptions to 17 healthcare professionals affiliated with TheraPsil – a Canadian non-profit coalition advocating for psilocybinassisted therapy – that allow them to use and possess mushrooms to understand its therapeutic possibilities. So far, TheraPsil says it has assisted 24 Canadians in accessing this kind of treatment. One of the palliative care exemption holders, Thomas Hartle, has become a media fixture for his newfound advocacy of mushrooms. The Saskatoon man, who has Stage-4 colon cancer, took psilocybin under the guidance of Dr. Bruce Tobin at TheraPsil to help manage his illness-related anxiety. After just one session, Hartle described in a YouTube video feeling much less helpless and hopeless. “Having cancer feels like being
Setting the stage and setting the standard, while working with Health Canada to show them how it can be done... to be able to provide safe, effective therapy, but not at a huge cost.
with Health Canada How many individual healthcare providers now have permission to use psychedelics in personal training?
Health Canada granted an exemption under subsection 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) to 19 healthcare professionals to use mushrooms containing psilocybin for the purpose of professional psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy training.
How many clinics have permission to use psychedelics?
No clinics have been granted an exemption from the CDSA to possess, provide or allow use of psilocybin. Exemptions for using mushrooms containing psilocybin for the treatment of end-of-life anxiety and psychological distress associated with a cancer diagnosis have been only granted to individual patients and to healthcare professionals for psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy training. This being said, at this time psilocybin is authorized for use in one clinical trial and MDMA for use in seven clinical trials. Clinical trials authorized by Health Canada can be found here.
How many individual patients now have exempt status to use psychedelics for therapeutic reasons? Health Canada granted an exemption under subsection 56(1) of the CDSA to 26 patients to use mushrooms containing psilocybin to treat their end-of-life anxiety and psychological distress associated with a cancer diagnosis. At this time, patients have only been granted subsection 56(1) of the CDSA exemptions to use mushrooms containing psilocybin.
Under the Food and Drugs Act, access to drugs that have not yet been approved for sale in Canada can typically be provided through either an approved clinical trial or through Health Canada’s Special Access Program (SAP). As a result of regulatory changes made in 2013, access to restricted drugs (a category of substances that are controlled under the CDSA that have no approved medical uses) through the SAP is currently prohibited. MDMA, psilocybin and LSD are all restricted drugs. Ketamine, which does have approved medical uses, is not. The SAP allows healthcare practitioners to better support patients with serious or life-threatening conditions by accessing drugs that have shown promise in clinical trials, or approved in other countries, but that have not yet been approved in Canada. On December 12, 2020, Health Canada launched a 60-day public consultation seeking comments on a proposal to reverse the regulatory changes made in 2013 and thereby restore access to restricted drugs through the SAP. The department is currently reviewing the feedback received through this consultation, which closed on February 10, 2021. All feedback received will be carefully considered and will help determine whether or not to proceed with the proposed regulatory amendments. Clinical trials remain the best mechanism to authorize the sale of restricted drugs (or any other unapproved drug) for the treatment of patients. However, there may be situations where patients are unable to participate in a clinical trial, for example when there are not any clinical trials available for a specific drug or in a specific area of the country. Restoring access to restricted drugs through the SAP would provide a potential option for healthcare professionals treating patients with serious or life-threatening conditions in instances where other therapies have failed, are unsuitable or are not available in Canada. However, restoring access through the SAP would not guarantee that applications to access restricted drugs would be approved. As is currently the case, all applications to the SAP would be considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the level of evidence pertaining to the safety, efficacy and quality of the drug, as well as the particular needs of the patient. For now, access to restricted drugs through the SAP remains prohibited.
B I O L A B M AG.C O M
What changes are being made to the special access program and other Health Canada programs to support research on psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapy?
dragged behind a horse,” he says in the video. “Maybe this would be a little closer to riding the horse.” The mind is a complex yet delicate thing – a collection of cells, neurons, tissues and glands that control not only our physical reactions, but also our emotional ones. According to Canada’s Federal Framework on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), over three-quarters of Canadians “are exposed to one or more events within their lifetime that could cause psychological trauma.” As the seminal book on PTSD, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, argues, traumatic experiences leave imprints on our brains, and trauma can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies throughout our entire lives. There is a growing body of scientific evidence to support claims that psychedelic drugs help people overcome – or at least, alleviate symptoms of – PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, anxiety and substance use disorders, among other mental illnesses and disorders. In a 2020 peer-reviewed article published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, authors write that “PTSD remains a chronic illness, with high rates of psychiatric and medical comorbidity,” even when patients undergo psychotherapy. The authors studied four types of drugs: MDMA, ketamine, classical psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD, as well as cannabinoids. “Psychedelic drugs offer opportunities for a novel approach to the treatment of PTSD,” the authors conclude. “Each of the reviewed compounds provides a unique potential, from their use to rapidly target the symptoms of PTSD to their use as adjuncts to facilitate psychotherapeutic treatments.”
Addressing Canada’s mental health crisis
BIOLAB BUSINESS VO L U M E 3 6, I S S U E 1 • 2 0 2 1
In a 7,000-sq.ft. lab on Vancouver Island, Numinus has a team of about a dozen scientists working on developing drug-testing methods, matrices and protocols, among other activities. In the company’s mycology room, where they grow mushrooms, only two people dressed in near-HAZMAT regalia are permitted at a time, to reduce potential for contamination. The company is making big moves fast, with a number of acquisitions, partnerships and applications announced in recent months. In December, Numinus and the highly respected Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) announced intentions to collaborate on a compassionate access trial in Canada to study MDMA’s effects on PTSD. MAPS has heavy-hitting experience, running MDMA trials in the U.S. since 2019, after the drug was given a “breakthrough therapy designation” by the American Food and Drug Administration. MAPS expects to finish its report in 2022, with hopes of making a prescription treatment available the following year. Advancements being made in the study of psychedelics come at a time when one in five Canadians experience mental illness or addiction. And, by the time Canadians turn 40, half of us will have, or have previously experienced, mental illness. Those two figures come from the Canadian Mental Health Association, which also says that 40 percent of Canadians have reported a decline in their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Devon Christie, a Vancouver-based family physician, joined Numinus as medical director in June for that very reason: to help industry push therapeutic psychedelics ahead faster than they would normally evolve within purely academic or scientific venues. “Traditionally, it takes about 20 years for something that is proven to be efficacious in research to actually get translated into routine clinical practice, and we don't have 20 years to wait for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to be adopted into clinical practice,” says Dr. Christie, pointing to the worsening rates of depression, anxiety and other mental and mood disorders. “These are life-threatening conditions,” Dr. Christie continues. “People commit
Each of the reviewed compounds provides a unique potential, from their use to rapidly target the symptoms of PTSD to their use as adjuncts to facilitate psychotherapeutic treatments.
suicide and overdose. And not only can people die as a result of these conditions, but it’s also [about] the impact on people’s quality of life and their relationships with their families and communities, people who are out of the workforce – whereas these therapies actually show that in many cases, these conditions can actually be cured.” For example, a small study by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers tracked psilocybin use in 24 adults with major depression. “Four weeks posttreatment, 54 percent of participants were considered in remission – meaning they no longer qualified as being depressed,” the study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, notes. The promise of a curative element feels both tempting and dangerous. As the Federal Framework on PTSD notes, many Canadians experiencing mental illness have long struggled to have their illnesses properly addressed, especially amid dire shortages of psychiatrists, high out-of-pocket therapy expenses and other barriers to mental health. Could taking a psychedelic drug once, twice, maybe three times at most – within a psychotherapy-assisted model, of course – really cure a person? There’s only one way to find out.
INTERNATIONAL CASE STUDY
AU TO M AT I N G P R O D U C T I O N at the World’s First Facility Making Omega-3
BY DELL WILLIAMS
B I O L A B M AG.C O M
Oil from Marine Algae
INTERNATIONAL CASE STUDY
When two international companies created the world’s first high-volume facility that manufactures omega-3 oil from natural marine algae, the $200M joint venture had to minimize any impact at the plant, which was already producing another product. Even more challenging, this had to be accomplished while adding new automation capabilities and upgrading a variety of systems and equipment. Today, in “landlocked” Blair, Nebraska, the joint venture – called Veramaris, between German-based Evonik and Royal DSM of the Netherlands – sustainably produces omega-3 fatty acids without using fish oil from wild-caught fish, with unique production capabilities that enable a much larger scale of production than ever seen before in algae cultivation. The breakthrough combines a special strain of algae of unprecedented richness in EPA and DHA omega-3, two fatty acids that are proven essential for good health in people and to produce healthier farmed fish. Veramaris’ mission is to expand the world’s access to sustainable EPA and DHA in support of aquaculture growth, as a means to provide healthy, nutritious seafood with a smaller environmental footprint. Much of the challenge in creating this facility revolved around how to effectively and efficiently scale up to full production after several years of research and development.
The answer, it turns out, involved implementing significant automation in a successful collaboration between the international companies and vendors, which contributed the necessary expertise to different aspects of the project. “The project involved taking some of the existing plant’s capability and repurposing that to produce the omega-3 oil, which required new equipment and controls. At the same time, the plant’s automation system was upgraded. Basically, every arrow in our [automation] quiver was used, so to speak,” says Dwight Wood, vice president of global sales for Owings Mills, Maryland–based NovaTech LLC Process Division, which specializes in continuous control system architecture. “This was a very complex, demanding project with a tight schedule and a diverse global team, so it was a monumental task to bring it all together and integrate it into an existing production line, while separating out new equipment,” adds David McBride, automation engineer at the Blair, Nebraska, plant. According to Wood, NovaTech’s portion of the project included implementation and integration of a Distributed Control System (DCS) update and expansion; new applications programming, a High-Performance Human-Machine Interface graphics; sophisticated S88 batch management software;
Work in the laboratories at the Veramaris facility in Blair, Nebraska. Credit: Dana Damewood Photography
BIOLAB BUSINESS VO L U M E 3 6, I S S U E 1 • 2 0 2 1
INTERNATIONAL CASE STUDY
an updated real-time data historian application; and I/O migration from an older version to a new modern I/O platform, along with startup and ongoing onsite support. “The key was implementing the full set of processes in a very robust, reliable, flexible system. It also needed to be highly automated, so the plant can effectively run on its own with minimal operator interaction,” says Wood. While many companies may begin with a standardized solution, as a project develops, much customization often needs to be done to tailor applications to specific processes. “On a different project, we worked with a larger automation vendor and they refused to cater to some of our special needs, and instead required us fit into their mold,” says McBride. “NovaTech, a mid-sized company, was more flexible and quickly able to offer custom solutions.” Although certain procedures and processes are increasingly standardized and automated, numerous key steps in and around the automation are still dependent on operator input or manual intervention. When the operator is interrupted to handle other tasks or responses vary from operator to operator, off-spec product can result, requiring costly corrective steps or product disposal. So, to minimize such potential operator variability while enhancing automation along with consistency and reliability, DCS are utilized. A DCS is a hub of a processor’s operations and monitors key variables such as flow, applied temperatures, pressure, level and material conveying/handling. The operator user interface brings all the data collected from production equipment and the controllers process and presents it in a highly “human factored” manner for an operator, generating trends, alarms, etc.
While the plant was already utilizing NovaTech’s D/3 DCS, this was further upgraded to display real-time process information in a complete, high-performance graphical human-machine interface. Custom graphics, built using dynamic objects from an extensive library, make it easy for the operator to control the process, enter information and interact with sequence programs. “For this particular project, there were extremely stringent specifications to produce the end product, so batches must be performed reliably and correctly every time,” explains Wood, who notes that NovaTech had a team of engineers onsite at the plant. “We worked with the customer to understand the requirements, and then outlined an automation strategy to meet their specific goals from a control perspective.” According to Wood, dealing with fermentation processes can be challenging to control due to a number of variables. The process involves preparing vessels, incoming media and downstream tanks, as well as managing volume, time and temperature in regards to the cultivation of beneficial microorganisms essential to the process. “Because of all the demands for successful fermentation, it is vital to fully understand the criteria and parameters before executing an automation strategy. This must be aligned to satisfy the control and production objectives,” says Wood. When manufacturers produce batches, particularly when utilizing fermentation, they are trying to replicate a perfect “golden batch” each time. Toward this end, the project integrated ISA S88-based layered batch management software called FlexBatch, which is designed to help reduce cycle times and life-cycle automation costs. It was also implemented to
B I O L A B M AG.C O M
Veramaris, the joint venture of DSM and Evonik, held a topping-out ceremony on site in Blair, Nebraska.
INTERNATIONAL CASE STUDY
aid control and flexibility when slight recipe adjustments may be required. The batch management software integrates recipe management and the automation layer so operators can quickly and easily develop, scale up, modify and schedule batch manufacturing recipes as required. Comparing each batch historically against the perfect standard also can be an important element of maintaining quality control. To enhance this capability, the project integrated an upgrade to the PI System by OSIsoft, a real-time data historian application with a highly efficient database. The application efficiently records data from process control systems like the NovaTech D/3 into a compressed timeseries database. This provides manufacturing sites historical predictive insights in real-time. “It is important to have both real-time and historical access to product data. Having the ability to quickly retrieve that kind of information allows manufacturers to more consistently manufacture product of the highest quality and integrity. And if there is ever a problem with product in the field, it simplifies tracking and troubleshooting,” says Wood. In order to implement plant automation, it also was necessary to migrate to a modern I/O system, the 8000 series platform,
Aquaculture farm on the Norwegian island Smøla close to Kristiansund.
BIOLAB BUSINESS VO L U M E 3 6, I S S U E 1 • 2 0 2 1
a remote I/O family native that is highly integrated with the D/3 system. “The combination facilitates greater automation with better diagnostics, troubleshooting and asset management capability. With the configuration used, we can drill down to the controller, to the specific I/O card so the operator does not have to go into the field to get the status of a specific card,” says Wood. Since there were hardware, software and engineering requirements tied in to the project, NovaTech tested these in its facility before implementing them at the plant. “Even with state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment, controls and production automation in place, how these are applied makes all the difference in the success of the project,” concludes Wood. With the automation project now complete, the plant is producing omega-3 oil from natural marine algae, with the capability of producing enough EPA and DHA equivalent to that derived from 1.2 million tons of wild-caught fish each year. The plant’s initial annual production is expected to meet about 15 percent of the current total demand for EPA and DHA in the salmon aquaculture industry. For more information, visit: novatechweb.com.
CELLASSIST Thrive Bioscience recently introduced the CellAssist, which enables cell culture researchers to image, analyze and document all cells, plates, reagents and workflow details in a centralized database. The CellAssist raises the bar for adherent cell culture by imaging and analyzing all the cells in a plate, not just cells chosen during typical manual inspection. Minutes after inserting a standard multi-well plate, the CellAssist captures, analyzes and displays hundreds of high-resolution images of cells at multiple magnifications, using phase contrast or bright-field. The visualization and analysis software allow researchers to comprehensively review images and metrics of the entire history of a project from one’s office or laboratory. thrivebio.com
COVID RESULTS IN MINUTES The Hyris bCUBE was recently approved by Health Canada for use as a medical device for COVID-19 human testing. As a portable device, the Hyris bCUBE provides onsite and accurate results in minutes. The Hyris bCUBE is a portable DNA-testing laboratory in a box, offering Point of Care (POC) testing wherever people are – anytime, anywhere. Controlled by any device with an internet connection, including a smartphone, the scientifically validated bCUBE analyzes test samples through a cloud-based platform that delivers accurate results in minutes. The device deploys PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) technology that has demonstrated a 95%+ accuracy rate in clinical trials. songbirdlifescience.com
QX200 DROPLET DIGITAL PCR SYSTEM
TTA TABLE TOP ROBOTIC SYSTEM A compact design that is extremely flexible, this table top robot is precise and multi-functional. It arrives prefabricated and fully assembled with a built-in controller ready for use. It is idea for clinical environments, with eight types of functions such as pick and place and sorting applications. The dedicated ZR-axis option enables video image processing and analysis for micro-dosing applications in biotechnology. It is equipped with a battery-less absolute encoder, a high-precision AC servo motor and a new PC software SEL Program Generator that enables the positioning data simply by drawing the operation path on the screen. intelligentactuator.com
B I O L A B M AG.C O M
The QX200 Droplet Digital PCR (ddPCR) System provides absolute quantification of target DNA or RNA molecules for EvaGreen or probe-based digital PCR applications. Offering precise and sensitive digital PCR solution for a wide variety of applications, the system features flexible digital PCR chemistry – optimized for TaqMan hydrolysis probe and EvaGreen assays, flexible assay setups that are scalable for high sensitivity or high throughput, droplet partitioning by the QX200 Droplet Digital technology to reduce bias from amplification efficiency and PCR inhibitors and a host of other benefits. It’s ideal for a full range of applications, from cancer biomarker studies to environmental monitoring. bio-rad.com
NEW PLASTIC ANALYZER SIMPLIFIES EVALUATION OF PLASTIC DEGRADATION Shimadzu recently released its Plastic Analyzer, a Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectrophotometer that is ideal for analyzing microplastics or contaminants, like those floating in marine environments. The system includes an IRSpirit FTIR spectrophotometer, a thermaldamaged plastics library, a newly released UV-damaged plastics library which is a database for identifying plastics degraded by ultraviolet rays, a new plastic analyzer method package and a QATR-S single-reflection ATR accessory for the IRSpirit series. The system allows accurate identification of contaminants with significantly more accuracy than before. shimadzu.com
TAQMAN REAL-TIME PCR ASSAYS Quantitative PCR (qPCR) or real-time PCR is used for sensitive, specific detection and quantification of nucleic acid targets. To help harness the power of qPCR across a range of applications, Thermo Fisher developed powerful new assay design algorithms, supported by intuitive data analysis software. Applied Biosystems TaqMan real-time PCR assays consist of target-specific primers and one or more probes optimized for specific applications, including gene expression, SNP genotyping, miRNA, mutation detection and copy number variation analysis. The company’s predesigned assays can detect virtually any gene product, offering powerful-coverage assays that can detect the highest number of transcript variants possible. thermofisher.com
EVA LAB AUTOMATION SYSTEM BIOLAB BUSINESS VO L U M E 3 6, I S S U E 1 • 2 0 2 1
AWARD-WINNING NANODIS SYSTEM Agilent’s NanoDis System provides formulation scientists with accurate release profiles of APIs using conventional dissolution apparatus in an automated, compliant manner. This functionality enables analysts to uncover the best nanoparticle formulation faster and get new drug formulations to market more quickly. It enables an easy transition from research and development to quality control environments and achieves consistent, reliable dissolution results for nanoparticle-based formulations in an automated process while ensuring cGMP compliance. The Agilent NanoDis System was selected as a finalist for the CPhI Pharma Awards for excellence in Pharma: Analysis, Testing and Quality Control. agilent.com
Eva is the affordable solution for the automation of lightweight (<1.25kg) pick and place applications. It is best suited to highly repetitive processes that don’t require skilled staff to perform. The most common use cases for Eva include machine tending, product testing, inspection, sorting and lab automation. Lab automation has a number of different applications that are suited for Eva, including: loading and unloading plates, cuvette and Eppendorf tubes for analysers and centrifuges. Eva can easily integrate with liquid dispensers, plate washers or readers, allowing to run tests both during the day and overnight. automata.tech
LIST OF ADVERTISERS & WEBSITES BioTalent Page 2...................................................................biotalent.ca/wagesubsidies Metrohm Page 5.................................................................metrohm.com/spectroscopy CPDN Page 47..................................................................................................... cpdn.ca CLSA Page 48....................................................................... clsassoc.com/memappl.tpl
By Suzanne Ma
the pandemic has presented some of the biggest challenges food businesses have ever faced, it’s also been exciting to witness so much innovation. We’ve seen hundreds of businesses across Canada and around the world get creative and pivot literally overnight in order to thrive in this fast-paced and unpredictable world. From farmers and grocers, to breweries, bakeries and meal prep companies, everyone is getting on the innovation bandwagon. When COVID-19 hit, grocers in particular experienced an unprecedented spike in demand. But consumers who normally shopped at retail stores faced empty shelves, long lines and stay-at-home orders. So, many turned online and formed new behaviours – and there’s mounting evidence these new behaviours are here to stay. A recent study of nearly 60,000 U.S. shoppers projects online purchases will account for about 21.5 percent of total U.S. grocery sales by 2025. This is just one of many exciting new trends in the world of grocery. Here are some more:
C A N A D I A N F O O D B U S I N E S S.C O M
Three Pandemic Trends That Are Here to Stay
Trend #1: Shop local
The local food movement is undergoing a renaissance thanks to COVID-19, with local farms, producers and CSAs seeing a significant uptick in demand. “We got lucky in that we didn’t have any supply chain interruptions,” says Jesse Bradley, fleet manager at Local Foods, a retail market and wholesale distributor in Chicago. “Whether or not there is a pandemic going on, crops are still going to be growing and farmers are still going to be harvesting. Our ultimate strength is how high-quality our product is and where the produce comes from. When you buy apples from us, it’s really the freshest food you can possibly get outside of going to an orchard.” Such local producers or distributors – also known as “farmto-table” or “farm-to-door” – present an enticing offering: First, supply chain transparency gives consumers a sense of security, knowing exactly where their food has come from. And second, fewer touch points means a much lower risk of contamination. As a result of the pandemic, local farms and food hubs have raised their profile as a healthy, sustainable and resilient source of food for communities around the world.
Trend #2: Home delivery is everywhere CANADIAN FOOD BUSINESS VO L U M E 3 6, I S S U E 1 • 2 0 2 1
As people stay at home for their health and safety, home delivery has become a critical offering. The pandemic has forced grocers to meet this demand in order to keep their businesses afloat. Toronto-based wholesale grocer Bondi Produce – which traditionally supplied restaurants and institutions – is a great example. “Our business took a big hit,” says warehouse supervisor Claudio Bondi. “We locked ourselves in a boardroom and said ‘How can we stop the bleeding?’ We had always wanted to get into home delivery and expand our product range, and this was our chance to test those waters.” Within two weeks, they put up a new website complete with an online store, and then retrofitted the back of the wholesale warehouse to house grocery and home delivery items. The team then integrated delivery management software which allowed them to plan and execute on the hundreds of home deliveries orders that came flooding in as people refrained from going into traditional retail grocery stores. “Right off the bat, it was a huge hit. And because we’ve implemented delivery management and routing technology, our home delivery business has the potential to scale. We plan to continue to offer a home delivery service even after the pandemic is over,” Bondi says.
Trend #3: Zero waste
Local food businesses and their consumers are often passionate about protecting the environment. In fact, the movement towards zero waste is gaining momentum across all industries. But when it comes to running a profitable business, sustainability isn’t easy to achieve. “If you are not organized and ready for a zero-waste, returnable packaging model, it can actually turn into a liability very quickly. But if you plan ahead, you can actually increase your margins,” says Jeff Pastorius, founder of On The Move Organics, a company that delivers local and organic food to communities across southwestern Ontario. On The Move makes their deliveries in large Rubbermaid bins, and smaller items are packaged in glass jars within the bins. After deliveries are made, these containers are picked up on a subsequent delivery, sanitized and prepped for another delivery. “People will often pay a deposit of one dollar on a jar, and this would normally cover the cost of disposable packaging. So, even if the customer doesn’t return the jar, we’ve offset the cost and reduced risk – all while maintaining our zero-waste strategy,” Pastorius explains. Implementing an efficient zero-waste program takes time and effort – but it’s worth it if it means staying true to the company’s core values. “This is an industry where you need to take your punches and learn how to make this work in the interest of the Earth not imploding,” Pastorius adds. By taking a hard look at the opportunities in front of them, these companies are making the best of a tough situation. Typically, rethinking their business model was the first step to success, and home delivery has become a saviour for many food suppliers.
Suzanne Ma is co-founder at Routific, a delivery management and route optimization solution that helps local food businesses scale up home delivery operations.
COPING WITH CHANGE, & MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Along with exposing Canada’s food security and distribution issues, we all know that COVID-19 has impacted the restaurant and bar industry on a dramatic scale. Restaurants Canada estimates that 10,000 restaurants closed in 2020, resulting in approximately 800,000 job losses; if lockdowns continue, it’s estimated approximately 50 percent of restaurants could shut down. From what I’ve seen, I’d guess more. Several organizations, including Restaurants Canada, are engaging in campaigns to support local businesses; delivery and pickup options have contributed to the survival of many restaurants, and retailers in general, although few can say they aren’t losing money, according to most reports. To support those who work(ed) in the hospitality industry, Not9to5.org is a new online initiative, providing mental health resources and educational courses “to educate and empower hospitality workers and employers on mental health and substance use literacy and support skills.”
New Tracking Tech For Livestock
A new direct-to-satellite smart livestock ear tag, Ceres Tag (developed in Australia) is a gamechanger for farmers with large herds. The solar-powered tag is an accelerometer with RFID technology, the first of its kind designed to meet accreditation guidelines with national livestock traceability programs. Each tag lasts more than 10 years to ensure lifetime coverage. Recently, Ceres Tag announced the addition of eGrazor technology, developed by Australia’s government agency, CSIRO; the sensor uses algorithms to monitor a wide variety of cattle behaviours, including pasture feed intake. cerestag.com
In the realm of food security, one of the people who is making a big difference in Canada is Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest (interviewed in the Spring 2019 issue of Canadian Food Business). In February, she was appointed as a member of the new Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council, established by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council is a key component of the Food Policy for Canada and brings together 24 experts and stakeholders from a variety of sectors, including the agriculture and food sector, health, academia and non-profit organizations. As the CEO at Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food recovery charity, Nikkel led the recovery and redistribution of more than 22.3 million pounds of healthy, unsold food to nonprofits across Canada in the last year. She was also named as one of the 2021 Women of Influence for her role in expanding the organization’s reach during times of need; a nationwide effort by Second Harvest provided approximately 62,000 meals per day. Nikkel also was a key player in the Surplus Food Rescue Program, which purchases surplus produce from farmers to be distributed to community groups such as shelters and school breakfast programs. In times of crisis, when the community supports those in need, we all come out ahead. Thank you to everyone who is making a difference!
Fifteen varieties of wheat from around the world were catalogued by a team from the University of Saskatchewan, enabling scientists and breeders to much more quickly identify influential genes for improved yield, pest resistance and other important crop traits. The research results, published in Nature, provide the most comprehensive atlas of wheat genome sequences ever reported. The 10+ Genome Project collaboration involved more than 95 scientists from universities and institutes in Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Israel, Australia and the U.S. One of the world's most cultivated cereal crops, wheat plays an important role in global food security, providing about 20 percent of human caloric intake globally. It’s estimated wheat production must increase by more than 50 percent by 2050 to meet increasing global demand.
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Study Generates Genomic Atlas For Global Wheat
RISK MANAGEMENT CANADIAN FOOD BUSINESS VO L U M E 3 6, I S S U E 1 • 2 0 2 1
There’s a lot at stake for livestock producers By Jana Manolakos
2008, Guelph student Catherine McCorquodale – who today practices agriculture law – gave a hard-hitting speech at the Royal Agriculture Winter Fair in Toronto. It painted a brutal picture of the cost to the Canadian cattle and beef industry hit by mad cow disease. “What do you do when in one day, you lose over $100,000 and your 15-year plan is thrown out the window?” she asked the audience, describing the impact on her family’s dairy farm in Embro, Ontario. From diseases like mad cow to tariffs and climate change – to the impacts of the current pandemic – Canadian livestock farmers are fighting a seemingly never-ending battle to fend off risks to their operations, in an industry that had annual shipments worth $22.3B in 2019. On the day of McCorquodale’s speech, five years had passed since a lone black Angus cow in Alberta had tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease. This triggered an unprecedented crisis in the Canadian beef and cattle industry, which still today is engaged in a legal battle with the government. While her family struggled with the reality that their cattle business was facing ruin, further difficult news followed. Canada was almost immediately banned from exporting its cattle to over
40 countries. According to a BFO report, between 2003 and 2004, Canadian cattle producers lost $5B. A month after mad cow disease appeared in Alberta, the federal agriculture ministry introduced a $460M beef industry compensation package, cost-shared with the provinces. The program included new slaughterhouse processes aimed at stemming the disease, along with millions of dollars invested in aggressive testing and disease tracking.
Buffering financial losses brought on by disease
Today in the Canadian pork industry, producers are watching closely for the after-effects of African swine fever (ASF), which ripped across China in 2018. They are bracing for a potential outbreak here at home, while seeing the impact on global pork prices. The loss of millions of pigs in China bumped up global pork prices, which was good news for Canada, as the world’s third-largest exporter of pork. That’s also why experts worry that an ASF outbreak could cost as much as $50B across the entire Canadian value chain. For Canadian poultry farmers affected by avian influenza in 2014, the damage was equally as devastating to some, as the highly infectious H5N2 strain tore through more than 17 million birds. Farmers sprang into action, reporting cases to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and initiating biosecurity measures that included cleaning and disinfection, quarantines and humane destruction of poultry. The disease, nonetheless, led to export restrictions on Canadian poultry and cost the Canadian economy $380M. A few years later, the federal government announced funding support to develop new insurance tools to protect poultry and egg producers against the financial impact of poultry disease. This was welcome news for Martin Adema, chair of the Poultry Insurance Exchange Reciprocal of Canada, a specialty provider of insurance products for losses caused by disease. He explains, “For years, our subscribers have asked for a policy that protects them from financial losses due to avian influenza.” Meanwhile, pork farmers in Manitoba recently launched into a two-year project to build their own risk management program. Similar to the one developed earlier by the chicken and egg famers, it would help them manage periods of financial instability and aid with the costs of cleaning and disinfection. By expanding the program to pork producers across Canada, they hope to make it more affordable for individual producers. The project is funded through the AgriRisk Initiatives (ARI), a five-year program under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership that supports the development of new risk management tools. AgriRisk is one of two federal programs, including AgriRecover, that help reduce economic hardships of outbreaks and support efforts to manage risk. The programs were key in helping B.C.’s poultry producers with a $1.58M investment to recover from the impact of avian flu in 2015, get operations up and running and prepare against future outbreaks.
According to a BFO report, between 2003 and 2004, Canadian cattle producers lost
Last year, Ontario beef producers, who contribute $2.8B annually to the provincial economy, were already dealing with market volatility when COVID-19 hit. The president of Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO), Rob Lipsett explains, “A perfect storm of market and trade disruptions caused average weekly losses of $2M over the past year in the Ontario beef industry.” His group is among many agricultural associations that have asked federal and provincial governments to boost business risk management programs. For one thing, BFO wants to see a $100M cap removed on the federal/provincial cost-shared Risk Management Program, so more farmers have financial protection against downturns in commodity market prices. The risk management program supports the Ontario beef sector, and bridges gaps with federal programs. Disruptions caused by the pandemic became painfully apparent this past December, when Guelph-based Cargill Meat Solutions, Canada’s largest federal beef processing plant, temporarily closed because a large number of its employees fell ill. The shutdown dramatically reduced processing capacity and left barns sitting idle. Within days, the governments of Canada and Ontario offered $5M to help the province’s
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A perfect storm: The cost of COVID-19 and market volatility
beef farmers manage costs associated with the impacts of the pandemic, accessible through Agricorp, the crown organization that supports risk management programs in the sector. Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, suggests, “We must look at and support all actions that can assist our current situation. This could include increases in processing capacity at provincial packing plants and holding back cows so that we can focus slaughter on fed cattle – everything must be considered.” Working with public health officials, beef processing plants have stepped up measures to prevent the spread of illness. They are taking temperatures of employees before the start of work each day, have added cleaning and disinfection for high-touch surfaces, their quality assurance personnel are monitoring hand washing and the use of hand sanitizers, and they have asked employees to self-monitor and to stay home if unwell. The past year was volatile for the Canadian pork industry, as well. Swine fever in China toward the end of 2018, a ban on Canadian pork by China in 2019 and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted Canadian pork prices and the Canadian pork market. As processing plants sit idle, hog farmers are faced with feeding stock that typically would move to market; by some estimates, the cost of feeding can run as much as $300,000 a month for a farm with 1,600 hogs. “Pork producers are expected to lose more than $500M due to COVID-19, losses that are expected to continue well into 2021,” warns Rick Bergman, chair of the Canadian Pork Council. This is where government programs like AgriStability come in; it’s a margin-based program designed to help producers manage large income declines. When it comes to trade issues, Canadian dairy, egg and poultry farmers also have found themselves fighting to survive. Two recent free-trade agreements, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe (CETA) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), cut into the sector’s domestic market share. According to the Chicken Farmers of Canada, the CPTPP – which came into force last December – alone cost billions in net operating costs for poultry and egg farmers. The losses triggered $691M in federal funding, announced in December. Roger Pelissero, chair of Egg Farmers of Canada, explains, “This investment in our sector will provide new opportunities for our farmers to reinvest in their operations and plan for the future as they navigate the market losses as a result of the CPTPP agreement.” CANADIAN FOOD BUSINESS VO L U M E 3 6, I S S U E 1 • 2 0 2 1
And then there’s climate change...
With Canada’s winter season predicted to shorten, and longer, hotter summers, Canadian farmers are looking for ways to overcome risks associated with inclement weather patterns. From drought resistant feed production to mitigating heat stress, Canadian farmers have teamed up with scientists to resolve the potential for catastrophes, like the one in Quebec in 2002, when a heat wave killed half a million poultry, despite modern shelters and ventilation systems; or the heat wave in Ontario in 2012, when hundreds of dairy cattle died. Last year, the federal government announced a new cooperative called the Living Laboratory, a nation-wide network of sites where farmers work with scientists and government on designing new practices or technologies to help with issues of climate change, water contamination, soil conservation and boosting capacity and biodiversity in agricultural settings. At the launch of Living Lab’s Manitoba site last December, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Marie-Claude Bibeau explained, “For Prairie farmers to keep feeding Canadians and people around the world sustainably, they need to get their hands on the right tools as quickly as possible. This innovative, collaborative research approach will help Manitoban farmers get the tailored tools they need to drive productivity in a sustainable manner.” Back in 2008, as McCorquodale finished her speech, she reminded her audience, “Canada has worked hard to gain the confidence of nations around the world by showing that we will face the problem head on. Our willingness to spend the time and money to ensure any problems are minimized for the future has revealed to the rest of the world that Canada prides itself on being a world leader in food safety and providing people with a reliable food supply.”
“Pork producers are expected to lose more than $500M due to COVID-19, losses that are expected to continue well into 2021.” – Rick Bergman, Canadian Pork Council
Report showcases Canada’s natural and functional food
INNOVATORS AND INVESTORS
By Jana Manolakos Brewery owner Ted Fleming
by Crohn’s Disease, Ted Fleming turned to drinking non-alcoholic beer, a beverage that was less irritating for his intestines. The problem was that most non-alcoholic beers lacked flavour and variety, so he grabbed the bull by the horns and began to brew his own, launching Partake Brewing in 2017. Since then, his Calgary-based operation has grown into an award-winning producer of non-alcoholic beers that offer taste and low-calorie profiles (10 to 30 calories per can). Partake is one of several startup and early stage companies featured in a new report by Natural Product Canada (NPC), an active investor and innovation cluster. The report, titled “Game Changers”, identifies companies, products and investors that NPC expects will have a major impact on Canadian functional food, nutrition and natural health products. “The Game Changers report shows the breadth of innovation and investment activity that is happening in Canada. It reflects the quality and diversity of players that are involved in this growing area of Canada’s economy,” says Shelley King, CEO of NPC. The report features investment and acquisition activities over a 24-month period in Canada, as well as insights into some of the unique characteristics of the Canadian natural nutrition landscape, such as the legalization of cannabis, and the exceptional standards for quality product development. King suggests that Canadian businesses can benefit from the report’s bird’s-eye view of
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“The plant-based movement in particular is driving more attention and investment into Canadian product development and capacity. The fact that so many of the big food players are focused on real, tangible innovation in everything from ingredients to sustainable packaging, means this industry is ripe for growth.” – SHELLEY KING, CEO, NPC
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what’s going on, to get a sense of the types of players out there, and what they might be looking for in their next product or partner. “Our focus on promoting Canada is two-fold,” she explains. “First, we see high-innovation, high-quality Canadian products and companies that may not be on the radar of Canadian consumers, retailers or investors because of their size or relative stage of development. But the quality and potential is there for them to be solid – really excellent additions to the food supply chain in Canada. Secondly, Canada is a great place for international food and nutrition companies to do business.” Driven by consumers who are increasingly educated about the foods they eat and who are strongly motivated by healthier lifestyles – a trend that has been further fuelled by health concerns stemming from the global pandemic – the market for natural and functional foods is growing in leaps and bounds. Consumer interest in alternative proteins and plant-based diets, functional beverages, microbiomes, CBD and hemp is driving a burgeoning health and wellness product market which a Canadian government report says “is expected to reach US$20.7 billion in 2022 from US$14.9 billion in 2013.” Healthy natural products had the largest market size in 2017 – a segment that is expected to surpass all the sub-segments in the health and wellness sector by the end of 2022. “The plant-based movement in particular is driving more attention and investment into Canadian product development and capacity,” King says. “The fact that so many of the big food players are focused on real, tangible innovation in everything from ingredients to sustainable packaging, means this industry is ripe for growth.” Companies like Maple Leaf Foods, which now offers meatless alternatives, and McCain Foods, which has pivoted to clean-label foods, have responded by expanding their traditional product portfolios and investing in healthier, plantbased ingredients. Newer companies like New Brunswick’s
Millennia TEA are attracting investments through sustainably sourced products. For the cannabis sector, since it became legalized two years ago, many startups are tackling challenges associated with improving the quality of their products and reducing costs. “Technological developments in critical sectors such as lighting, genetics and growth systems have the potential to resolve many of the industry’s challenges, but on top of already high operating costs, the costs of R&D can often be a huge burden,” notes Nicholas Garcia, head of manufacturing consulting services at Leyton Canada. This is where NPC can assist, explains King. The innovation cluster helps Canadian natural product entrepreneurs overcome key commercialization hurdles and attract investment. She explains, “We have everything they’re looking for to make substantial investments into R&D and production – agricultural capacity, an exemplary research and development system, a highly educated workforce, efficient national distribution systems and a stable, innovative infrastructure of government supports.” For Partake Brewing, NPC’s commercialization programs enabled the fledgling company to hire a VP of sales, which led to increased market share and revenues, and helped them with their capital raise of $4M. Sales of Partake Brewing have grown steadily, increasing 250 percent between 2019–2020, and sales continued to grow during COVID-19, with an increase of 100 percent from March 2020 to early 2021. Partake has added more than 1,000 retailers to its roster since the 2017 launch, and in April, launched a new ecommerce site to bring a more convenient retail experience to consumers. Company owner Fleming acknowledges, “The support, guidance and insights NPC has provided put us in an excellent position to expand our category leadership and accelerated the success of our great-tasting, low-calorie, craft non-alcoholic beers across Canada and the United States.” He offers advice for new companies: “The potential to gain traction and build momentum comes from solving a shared problem. Identify the problem, get started with a good solution and improve it along the way with feedback from customers. Your solution, combined with passionate customers and a sizable market opportunity, will bring investors to you.” Connecting with future investors is an almost daily occurrence at NPC. King explains, “When we start to help them take a closer look, you can see them get really interested in what Canada has to offer. The report was really developed to give a quick overview of how much innovation is happening, and how that’s translating into business opportunities. Game Changers makes it clear that Canada is a great source of innovation, and an excellent place to do business.” She concludes, “The outlook for the Canadian natural foods market has never been brighter. The consumer focus on natural and clean label just keeps growing.”
PLANT-BASE PREBIOTIC OFFERS ALL THE GOODNESS OF FIBRE WITHOUT THE BLOAT With Arrabina’s excellent solubility, stability in solution and ﬂavour, this arabinoxylan prebiotic dietary fibre offers an easy way for supplement, food and beverage makers to create delicious products while strengthening their nutrition labels and sustainability claims. Recent results from a double-blind, randomized clinical trial confirm its superior gastrointestinal tolerability and prebiotic function, which promotes the growth of bifidobacteria. The clinical trial consisted of 36 healthy individuals who consumed Arrabina at 6 or 12 g per day, or a placebo. Results showed that even at a high dosage of 12 g per day, there were no statistical differences in GI distress between the participants taking Arrabina versus those taking the placebo. Comet Bio uses upcycled crop leftovers to produce the plant fibre product, using a proprietary water extraction technology. comet-bio.com
NEW READER BOOSTS FOOD SAFETY ANALYSIS A new automation technology, the 3M Petrifilm Plate Reader Advanced gives food safety professionals new options to rapidly and accurately image, count and document microbiological colonies on 3M Petrifilm Plates indicator tests. The reader is a small, peripheral device containing a five-megapixel camera and versatile bar code reader, and it uses fixed artificial intelligence networks to enumerate 3M Petrifilm Plates. By rapidly automating the colony-counting step of the plates, this plate reader saves food safety labs time and increases productivity. 3M’s Petrifilm Plates are inserted into the device, with imaging and information automatically displaying on a USB-connected computer in less than six seconds, processing up to 900 plates per hour. 3m.com
WILEVCO The Wilevco SDA (Spinning Disc Applicator) is the perfect tool for evenly distributing coatings onto food products, such as spray coating chicken breasts. The SDA uses patented “spinning disc technology” to apply coatings without a spray-bar or nozzles, for an even and consistent coating while maintaining very specific application amounts. It means less mess, better control of the applied coating and, with no nozzles, no risk of clogging with particulate. The SDA saves wasted product and prevents overspray, puddles and slip hazards. Once the run cycle is complete, the SDA is easily washed to remove any food safety hazards. wilevco.com
Last fall, Simbe Robotics launched Tally 3.0, the latest addition to its line of autonomous retail robots. Enhancements to the robot’s optical system, greater durability and maneuverability ensure top performance. With the introduction of an embedded data processor, Tally 3.0 is the most innovative, efficient retail robot on the market, offering accuracy, cost effectiveness and real-time data intelligence. Its compact, slim design and unobtrusive approach has the ability to capture accurate inventory in any retail environment, from standard fixture, variable shelving units to coolers, freezers and top stock auditing. Tally is seamlessly integrated in challenging retail environments like tight, crowded spaces and aisles. simberobotics.com
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TALLY IS THE LATEST AUTONOMOUS INVENTORY ROBOT ON THE MARKET
MOMENTS IN TIME
THE IDEA THAT MACHINES COULD LEARN – AUDACIOUS GENIUS By Jana Manolakos
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In science, a single question can ignite gamechanging discoveries. For British-born Canadian neuroscientist and Google executive Geoffrey Hinton, that pivotal moment came in the 1960s, when as a high-school student he was contemplating threedimensional holograms. Known today as a “godfather of deep learning,” Hinton drew connections between the human brain and holographic images. Unlike photographs, which capture only the face of an object, holograms capture every point around that object and reflect it back to create three dimensions. Hinton saw similarities with the way the brain stored memory. Rather than capturing memories at only one juncture, a complex network of neurons spreads memory throughout, in a brain-wide process. Those many decades ago, questioning whether we could mimic the function of the brain gave rise to what today is commonly accepted as machine learning. This triggered exponential growth in the rate of new discoveries – from deep space exploration to nanotech, to new drug formulations and automated, intelligent environments. Hinton went on to study neural networks at Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh, and later taught at the University of Toronto, where he is Chief Scientific Advisor (and cofounder) of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. In 2013, Google acquired Hinton’s neural networks startup, DNNresearch, and he joined Google as a vice president and engineering fellow, where Hinton manages Brain Team Toronto, a new division of the Google Brain Team. For Hinton, it’s all about connections. He explains, “About 60 years ago, at the beginning of AI, there were two ideas about how you make intelligent systems. There was a logic system idea, in which you process streams of symbols using rules of inference, and there was the biologically inspired idea that you try to mimic a big network of brain cells and learn the strengths of the connections.” He says that for a long time, the neural net paradigm based on mimicking the brain didn’t work very well. Scientists were unsure why. “In the end, it didn’t work very well because we hadn’t gotten enough data and computer power,” he explains, adding, “At the beginning of this century, with more and more computer power and data, suddenly systems that learned things, as opposed to systems that you programmed, became more effective. And that’s what has happened in the last 10 years. We’ve seen them become better at speech recognition, much better at recognizing things in images, much better at machine translation.” Hinton was one of the researchers who introduced the backpropagation algorithm, and the first to use backpropagation for learning word embeddings. His other contributions to neural network research include Boltzmann machines, distributed representations, time-delay neural nets, mixtures of experts, variational learning, products of experts and deep belief nets. Hinton’s research group in Toronto made
“At the beginning of this century, with more and more computer power and data, suddenly systems that learned things, as opposed to systems that you programmed, became more effective. And that’s what has happened in the last 10 years.” – Geoffrey Hinton
major breakthroughs in deep learning that revolutionized speech recognition and object classification. Hinton is optimistic about the impact of deep learning on the future. “For example, to save the planet, we must make solar panels more efficient and, to do that, we need nanotechnology. Deep learning is now being applied to predict the properties of materials, so I think it may have a big impact there. If you can make solar panels 10 percent more efficient, that will have a huge effect. “I think it is inevitable that driverless cars will come and they will save a lot of lives. There may be a transition in how we view transport. They will be socially owned and highly coordinated, so you can get a lot of them travelling very closely together, very fast, without problems.” And to think, it all began with a simple question: What if machines could learn?
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