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European Biopharmaceutical Review

Ontario’s Biopharma Boom

With Ontario emerging as North America’s new hot spot for life sciences, Bill Mantel at the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation explores what the gateway has to offer

With a focus on the most promising fields of study, the presence of top researchers, and an on-going series of smart investments, the province of Ontario, Canada, is producing headline-grabbing results within the biopharmaceutical sector. Stories spotlighting research breakthroughs or achievements involving Ontario scientists seem to pop up almost weekly. Many discoveries come from the leading edge of genomics and stem cell research.

BARCODE OF LIFE

One recent project has been the hugely successful ‘Barcode of Life’ initiative. Its genesis came in early 2003, when researchers at the University of Guelph, led by Dr Paul Hebert, first suggested the potential to use a small, 650-unit long DNA fragment to identify species. From there it was a small leap to the idea of cataloguing every species of life on the planet and creating an online reference library. The concept captured the imagination of researchers around the world and the collaborative project now involves more than 80 organisations in 33 countries across six continents. As a tool for measuring and monitoring biodiversity, the ‘barcode’ approach has already paid off. Scientists have discovered 15 new genetically distinct species of birds in Canada and the US and six new species of bats in Guyana. Dr Hebert envisions that within 10 years people could have a small hand-held DNA reader that could scan any living organism and reveal a wealth of biological information.

Other recent media reports have focused on the latest results from the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), a not-forprofit organisation led by the University of Toronto’s Dr Aled Edwards, and involving the universities of Oxford and Toronto, as well as the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, various government funding agencies and private-sector participants including GlaxoSmithKline. The project’s goal is to identify three-dimensional structures of proteins of medical importance, particularly with respect to their potential as targets for the development of new therapeutic drugs, and place them in the public domain without restriction. As of August 2006, the SGC had met or exceeded all their goals and had deposited the 275th structure into the Protein Data Bank.

HIGH IMPACT SCIENCE

News-making stories are also emerging from a growing number of young Ontario biotech companies. Amorfix Life Sciences, for example, received a Technology Pioneer Award from the World Economic Forum in 2007 for its discovery platforms that identify proteins involved in misfolding diseases. Their technologies, based on the work of Drs Neil Cashman and Marty Lehto, then of the University of Toronto, hold tremendous potential for the early detection of such diseases as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and the human form variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, as well as degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. “There’s an amazing amount of high impact science going on right now in Ontario,” said Dr Christian Burks, President and CEO of the Ontario Genomics Institute (OGI). Part of the reason for this, he points out, is the critical mass of research talent.


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Bill Mantel is the Director of the Commercialisation Branch at the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation. He is responsible for the implementation of a range of strategies and programmes intended to accelerate growth in knowledge-intensive industries within the province of Ontario, Canada. Since joining the Ontario Public Service in 1987, Bill has held positions of increasing responsibility, focused on the development and implementation of provincial policy and programme initiatives – including provincial initiatives in the biotechnology and health industries. Bill holds a BSc in Agriculture and Business.
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