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A scanning electron micrograph of Candida albicans biofilm (bacteria colony) growing on a wound dressing. (Innovotech)
A scanning electron micrograph of Candida albicans biofilm (bacteria colony) growing on a wound dressing. (Innovotech)

Campus Research

Stubborn infections one of the targets of research park biotech labs Add to ...

The 26 research parks that are allied to Canadian universities not only foster research but also help turn it into commercial products, especially in the fast-growing field of biotechnology.

For example, Innovotech Inc. started as a spin-off from technological developments at the Biofilm Research Group at the University of Calgary. Then it moved to the Edmonton Research Park and now collaborates with both the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta.

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Innovotech researchers have discovered a new silver compound that could prevent hospital-acquired infections.

In 2010, silver and chemical engineering expert Patricia Nadworny stumbled on a new silver compound, now named InnovoSIL, while searching for a way to penetrate biofilms, which are deemed 1,000 times harder to kill than bacteria floating freely in fluids.

More than 80 per cent of all human infections are caused by biofilm, a slick surface that coats materials immersed in flowing fluids, says Ken Boutilier, chief executive officer of Innovotech. “Virtually any chronic infection is a biofilm infection,” he says.

Hospital-acquired infections are largely caused by medical procedures to implant medical devices, such as catheters, some wound dressing, even artificial hips, he says. Hospitals trying to stem infections have approached the medical device industry for help, to provide better coating on devices that would thwart biofilm.

Dr. Nadworny, who has studied the antimicrobial properties of silver, says some silver products actually react with the biofilm itself and don’t reach the bacteria. But the structure of the company’s silver compound is more stable than most, allowing it to penetrate the biofilm, she says. And it doesn’t react with blood or other body components.

“I just kept getting surprised at how well it was performing,” says Dr. Nadworny, who is the product development manager at Innovotech. “I tend to be a bit of a skeptic, and each time I expected it to fail, it performed really well.”

Currently, the company’s focus is on using the compound for wound dressings and catheters for short-term applications to the body. The testing procures for using the compound for medical implants are much more exacting. “There is a different level of testing required,” she says. The company may follow this path down the road.

The silver compound hasn’t been sold for commercial use yet, but Innovotech is currently is working with some partner companies that are testing the material for various applications.

The key factor for success for research companies is access to markets, and the faster you get there, the better, Mr. Boutilier says. “That’s the only way you can ward off the need to have capital, which was the big issue in the past and still is today.”

Mr. Boutilier says Innovotech has run a contract research business from the beginning, already working with medical device companies in providing science already packaged for regulatory agencies. Their contacts with these companies has helped them advance products onto the market more quickly.

Cancer screening

A discovery of some unusual fatty acids in the digestive tract led to a new screening process that can detect colorectal cancer earlier.

Phenomenome Discoveries Inc., located at Innovation Place Research Park at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Sask., started in 2000 as a human health research company.

Several years ago, researchers at Phenomenome discovered about 30 very long-chain fatty acids in the gastrointestinal tract that had unusual protective qualities. They had to name them (GTAs) because they had not been identified or characterized before. Just as significantly, they found that these metabolic chemicals were either absent or decreased in the blood of people with colorectal cancer.

In 2009, the company conducted clinical trials in Saskatchewan, testing 5,000 subjects scheduled for colonoscopy.

They found the screening test was able to measure the risk of cancer in 80 per cent of actual cases. It even picked up the risk in early stages.

After almost 13 years of work, the company launched its first product, the COLOGIC screening test, last October, while working in partnership with Ontario marketer CML HealthCare Inc.

The standard test used today is stool testing, which looks for evidence of a tumour. “This test performs better as the cancer advances and the tumour is larger, ” says Alix Hayden, director of operations at Phenomenome.

CML HealthCare jumped on board quite early because COLOGIC could determine risk at an earlier stage than the standard test.

The COLOGIC screening test will be useful in determining which patients need to advance to a colonoscopy, the gold standard test for colorectal cancer, Ms. Hayden says. “Colonoscopy resources are precious,” she says. “It’s an invasive procedure that is not without risks [however rare].”

Currently, COLOGIC is on the market only in Ontario but Ms. Hayden says it will be rolled out to other provinces within the next year, and then the company will set its sights on the global market. The company also has other products in the pipeline using the same principle, a simple blood sample, to test the risk of pancreatic or ovarian cancer. “These are both very interesting challenges, because in both, there is not a gold standard test at the moment and there is a whole different level of need there,” Ms. Hayden says.

Phenomenome also has research programs in degenerative diseases, with an eye toward developing blood tests for Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

“The graveyard is littered with small biotech companies in Canada and the United States, that are founded and then have trouble making that kind of stretch – 13 years to get to market,” Ms. Hayden says. Phenomenome started as a research company looking for a revenue streams and investment to continue the research and has grown into a company with a revenue stream and products on the market.

Bio-bins

Researchers at the Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre, located at the University of Guelph in Ontario, have turned garbage and grass into a useful product.

Bio-bins are already on the shelves of Home Hardware and Canadian Tire. The bins are a composite of recycled plastics and natural fibres, namely the common switch grass, grown locally.

Amar Mohanty, director of the centre and an international leader in the field of biomaterials, says the product is made up of about 25 to 30 per cent bioproducts, which helps to decrease the consumption of petroleum.

“That will result in the reduction of greenhouse gases emissions,” he says. “We tried to develop a technology depending on agriculture residues, so you can have your agriculture residue, recycled plastics, and your compounding and moulding all within a 100-kilometre radius. That helps to make the technology viable and sustainable.”

The 13 researchers at the centre also use other natural fibres, such as corn cobs, oat hulls, soy bean stalks or wheat straw – all of which open up new markets for local farmers, too.

The bioproducts are completely biodegradable and the crops renewable. And switch grass can be grown on marginal farm lands.

The humble bio-bin was born of novel partnerships, financed by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and industry partners, such as the RBC Foundation. Last November, the federal government granted the centre $2-million.

The University of Guelph earns royalties from licensing the bio-bin formula and the bins are marketed by an eco-products marketing company in Waterloo, Ont. Companies in Kitchener, Ont., and Cambridge, Ont., manufacture the bin.

The centre has also developed another product that Dr. Mohanty calls “flower pot,” made from similar materials. The idea is also to develop biomaterials for use in car parts, and furniture. And Dr. Mohanty is also striving for a product that is 100 per cent made up of bioproducts and has already filed a patent for it.

“The challenge is to keep the balance between cost and performance,” he says. “We are always trying to make new products that can be cost competitive and enter into the marketplace.”

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