Cementing our leadership position
by Kathryn Warden
Over the past two decades, the U of S Veterinary Infectious Diseases Organization (VIDO) has transformed itself from a small team of pioneers in agricultural biotechnology to a world-class research centre that can take credit for the first genetically engineered animal vaccine. Now VIDO is poised to do the same thing in the cutting-edge field of genomics, the science of deciphering and understanding the genetic code of life. In April, Industry Minister Allan Rock announced that VIDO will lead a $27-million genomics research project -- the largest grant ever awarded by Genome Canada.
The grant -- roughly $19 million of which will stay in Saskatchewan -- will bolster VIDO's efforts to develop new and effective strategies for infectious disease control, benefiting not just animal welfare and productivity, but also human health and food safety. This huge award marks the second time in two years that the bulk of Prairie region money for federally sponsored genomics research has come to Saskatoon. It's another feather in the cap for this campus's growing reputation as a world-class centre for life sciences research. The goal of the project is to use the power of genomics to better understand how immunity to infectious agents works and how it can be enhanced. In particular, the team will look at whether individual genes in the body are turned on or off by infection. "What we would like to do now at VIDO is use genomics to define the next generation of products for both animal and human health," says VIDO science director Andrew Potter. "This could include new methods of vaccine delivery, new drugs that can serve as replacements for antibiotics, and new ways to use those drugs."
Infectious diseases are responsible for a third of all human deaths on the planet and they cost the livestock industry billions every year. How did VIDO become a world-class research facility with 30 patents issued worldwide and 10 pending in the U.S. alone? "It takes vision and a belief that excellence will be rewarded," says Potter. "And you have to interact with people all over the country and all over the world." For the genomics grant, VIDO director Lorne Babiuk (BSA'67, MSc'69, DSc'87), has brought together leading, internationally prominent researchers in infectious diseases, animal health, and bioinformatics (the emerging field that helps unravel the vast amount of data from genomic studies).
Babiuk, holder of a U of S Canada Research Chair, has teamed up with the University of British Columbia, which will conduct a third of the work, and two corporate partners -- AniGenics Canada Inc. and Inimex Pharmaceuticals Inc. AniGenics, a small Chicago-based biotechnology firm, now plans to establish a Canadian subsidiary in Saskatoon. VIDO will use some of the new money to add a third floor to its building, as well as fund 40 new positions ranging from graduate student and post-doctoral fellowships to technicians and scientists. "We want to attract some top-flight scientists here in areas such as molecular biology, immunology, genomics and bioinformatics," he said.
VIDO, currently undergoing a $14.2-million expansion, could soon see its global stature even further enhanced if its proposal to create an international vaccine testing centre is approved for funding by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. "Some researchers at U of S tend to be rather tentative and say 'We can't compete with other universities,'" says Potter. "Well we can." With this grant, Genome Canada has awarded almost $55 million to Saskatoon researchers in the past year by Genome Canada. More than $30 million will be spent in Saskatchewan. This figure also includes grants awarded to teams led by plant scientists Graham Scoles in the College of Agriculture and Wilf Keller at the National Research Council's Plant Biotechnology Institute on campus. It's an extraordinary accomplishment for a city of only 200,000 that aspires to be known as "Science City".
What these projects have in common is that they all involve research into the function of genes and the proteins encoded by those genes, whether in plants, animals or humans. At this molecular level of research, the life sciences converge, providing tremendous opportunities for collaborations across disciplines and among research partners both on campus and in industry. The U of S is uniquely poised to exploit these cutting-edge genomics opportunities. It has the most comprehensive range of life science colleges (including veterinary medicine) and departments in Canada. It is building research excellence with the new Saskatchewan Structural Sciences Centre. And it is home to both the , the tool of choice for probing the structure of molecules, and Innovation Place. When you add in other campus research groups such as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's research centre, the POS-Pilot Plant, and the Saskatchewan Research Council, the U of S campus community has an unparalleled opportunity for synergy and new discoveries in what is loosely called ï¿½bio-innovation."
Of course, there've been collaborations underway for years -- such as in plant sciences or the fertility work jointly carried out by researchers in vet med and medicine (the joke in the vet college is that physicians are "just veterinarians with a single species specialization"). But having two world-class facilities on campus -- the U of S-owned national synchrotron and a hugely expanded VIDO -- takes these opportunities to a whole new level.