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Steve Kornic, left, lab manager of the new Biointerfaces Institute at McMaster University in Hamilton, watches as student Blake Helka uses one of several automated material-handling systems. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)
Steve Kornic, left, lab manager of the new Biointerfaces Institute at McMaster University in Hamilton, watches as student Blake Helka uses one of several automated material-handling systems. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

Research

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In science, as in business, success can hinge on developing an expertise that is tightly focused but widely applicable. That’s the thinking behind the newly opened Biointerfaces Institute, a state-of-the-art laboratory at McMaster University whose relevance to industry is more than skin deep.

“When companies come here they may come with one idea of what they’d like do,” says John Brennan, an analytical chemist who heads the institute in Hamilton. But Dr. Brennan says that once potential collaborators walk through the door they quickly recognize there are many ways in which they might engage its resources. “So I think this is going to ramp up and ramp up.”

Equipped with a suite of customized robotic machines that whir, hum and manipulate samples with impressive dexterity, the goal of the institute is to dramatically speed up the process of finding out what happens when a bit of living stuff comes in contact with a manufactured surface.

At first blush the question may seem academic, but the answer is crucial to a broad spectrum of commercial products. A contact lens that doesn’t gum up with proteins floating on the surface of your eye is more comfortable and can be worn longer. A water quality test that is meant to quickly detect the presence of certain microbes works only if the microbes cling to the testing surface.

In practice, it can take years to find a surface that is just right for coaxing a specific biological substance to stick or not stick. The institute, unique in Canada, was created to circumvent this needle-in-a-haystack problem by allowing researchers to screen tens of thousands of materials at a time, looking for a potential “hit.” And from the start, it has opened its doors to companies that are looking for solutions.

Dr. Brennan and a few colleagues dreamed up the institute in 2007 when they were considering how automation had revolutionized the pharmaceutical industry by allowing scientists to synthesize and test many potential drugs at once to see whether something might have a positive effect. “We looked at the biomaterials and the biointerfaces area and we asked, ‘Why is nobody doing it this way?’” Dr. Brennan says.

It took six years to figure out the details, including transforming drug discovery technology into something that could make and handle a wide range of materials, from plastics to glassy materials to sticky goo. The $22-million was built primarily with federal and Ontario government funding. But it has already leveraged an additional $3-million in funding to work on specific projects with a variety of industry partners.

Among the first to hop on board with the institute is Pro-Lab Diagnostics of Richmond Hill, Ont., a maker of bench-top clinical testing kits, primarily for microbiology labs in a hospital or research setting.

A key technology that the company uses involves attaching proteins called antibodies to polystyrene particles that can then be affixed to a detection surface. Each type of antibody is sensitive to a particular infectious agent. When the agent sticks to the antibodies it causes a chemical reaction that reveals its presence.

In working with the Biointerface Institute, the company hopes to develop a process in which the testing material is printed on a special form of paper, yielding a kit that is less expensive to ship as well as easier to store and use.

“It would be an advanced form of testing,” says chief executive officer Robert Rae, “because the system would introduce a level of sensitivity that currently doesn’t exist.”

Mr. Rae adds that while he has consulted with academic researchers in the past, the company has ramped up to a new level of R&D through its current involvement with the institute.

“It’s a great example of how to bring commerce and academic research together in such a way that all parties will benefit,” Mr. Rae says.

Another partner is EcoSynthetix Ltd. of Burlington, Ont., a leader in developing materials such as paint and adhesives in which petroleum-derived ingredients are replaced with bio-based substitutes.

“A lot of these products are directly tied to the price of oil,” John van Leeuwen, the company’s CEO, says. “The game that we are in is really to help people transition.”

The company’s approach is to start with partial replacement in its products and then shift to higher and higher substitution ratios as technology allows. Here again the Biointerface Institute stands to play an important role by helping to rapidly identify materials that have the right properties to displace the petroleum based ones in a given product.

Mr. van Leeuwen said the institute’s interdisciplinary nature is one of the features that makes it particularly attractive as a partner. In developing products Ecosynthetix relies on expertise in biology, chemistry and engineering of a sort that is typically not found in one place. Generally, for a startup or developing company, “You can never afford to hire all the talent you need,” Mr. van Leeuwen says, “but you can leverage the talent you’re missing through collaborations such as this.”

For Dr. Brennan and other faculty members at the institute, that is precisely the point behind the way the lab is set up. While he is confident that it will generate innovations and, eventually, revenue from licensing discoveries made there, it is also going to provide an additional benefit for young scientists.

“We’re operating this in a very different way from what a typical graduate student would see in a standard academic lab,” Dr. Brennan says. “When students leave this place and end up going off into industry they’re going to be incredibly well trained.”

Applications

Some of the challenges that the Biointerfaces Insititute may help address with its ability to create and screen tens of thousands of new materials at a time:

– Making countertops and door handles that repel infectious pathogens for hospitals;

– Developing simple means for detecting antibiotic resistant bacteria such as C difficile;

– Making kits for home testing cholesterol levels;

– Developing contact lenses that can be worn for days at a time instead of hours;

– Creating portable and immediate water quality testing for the developing world.

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