SEQUENCE #7: Looking to genomics for hope and solutions

“There is hope”.

This is how Dr. Martin Alda summed up the promise of genomics as a potential game-changer for diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder (BD). Clinicians have known for some time that BD tends to run in families, and Dr. Alda and his colleague Dr. Rudolf Uher are at the forefront of new research that is using genetics to diagnose BD more quickly in high-risk individuals and to predict which treatment will work best for which people.

Drs. Alda and Uher, psychiatrists and researchers with Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Health Authority, were speaking at a recent panel discussion on genomics and bipolar disorder co-hosted by Genome Atlantic and Genome Canada. The event opened up with some exciting news: Genome Atlantic and Genome Canada were joined by the Nova Scotia Health Authority, Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, Research Nova Scotia Trust, and the Dalhousie Department of Psychiatry in announcing $975,000 in funding for a new research project co-led by Drs. Alda and Uher, which aims to develop new clinical screening tools to better diagnose and treat BD. Also read our interview with Dr. Alda.

It was a big week. A few days earlier, Genome Atlantic celebrated the announcement of a $1.4 million project co-led by Dr. Rob Beiko of Dalhousie University, that will develop new genomic tools to fight superbugs. These tools, consisting of bioinformatics algorithms and software, will track genes that contribute to antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – a huge problem for the agri-food industry and the health of Canadians.

The mental health and superbugs projects are on the cutting edge of health innovation. The work led by Drs. Alda and Uher has the potential to improve lives through speedier, personalized medicine-based treatments. Dr. Beiko and his team are leading the charge in developing tools that will allow us for the first time ever, to track AMR as a dynamic phenomenon involving the transfer of genes among AMR-resistant bacteria.

Genomics is the impact driver in the innovation toolkit. But not just in health. In November, we launched a $1.1 million New Brunswick-based project to advance cannabis research and increase productivity – and we’ll soon have some exciting project news on the aquaculture and environment fronts too. All the above projects are supported by Genome Atlantic, with funding from Genome Canada and other public and private partners.

Recently, Genome Atlantic took part in an important announcement for the Maritime apple industry: the launch of the National Apple Breeding Consortium which brings together Canadian researchers, breeders and marketers with the aim to streamline apple development and boost returns to the industry. Genome Atlantic and Dalhousie University apple researcher Dr. Sean Myles were instrumental in getting the Consortium off the ground, and we hope to pursue future research through the Consortium, using genomics to improve and accelerate the development of successful new Maritime apple varieties.

The ability to recruit and keep top talent is critical for Atlantic Canada. And so, we’re pleased to share with you the stories of three talented scientists working in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and a doctoral student at Memorial University in Newfoundland – all living and working here in part because of Genome Atlantic projects.

Finally, a big thanks to Invest Nova Scotia who recently announced funding of $325,000 over three years to support Genome Atlantic’s business development activities in Nova Scotia. Genome Atlantic’s strategy is driven by the needs of end-users, and this investment will help us to meet the rapidly-growing demands for genomic solutions across health and resource sectors.

Eight Questions with GE3LS Researchers – Dr. Matthew Schnurr

Content provided by Genome Canada

Dr. Matthew Schnurr, Ph.D.

GE3LS research looks at the important ethical, environmental, economic, legal or social issues of where genomics and society intersect.  Genome Canada kicks off a series on GE3LS researchers with this profile of Matthew Schnurr, Ph.D., Associate Professor, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University.

Where did you grow up?  Toronto.

Apart from your present one, what’s the best job you ever had?  Swim Instructor.

What’s your academic/research background? How did it lead you to GE3LS research? I started off as a student in the natural sciences studying agricultural biotechnology, then got interested in examining the political and social implications of these new tools.   

How would you describe your research to a group of Canadian students? Why is your work important to them?   My work explores the potential for genome-enhancing agricultural technologies to alleviate poverty and hunger for small-scale African farmers.  These questions should resonate with anyone concerned about issues of global poverty and inequity.

What kind of response has there been to your research? What impact have you seen?  My work seeks to amplify the voices of farmers within these debates.  The response from policy makers and development donors in Africa has been positive as most stakeholders agree that for a technology to be widely adopted it must reflect the priorities of the end user. 

What’s the most unusual or unexpected thing about your work as a GE3LS researcher?  The debate over new biotechnology is politicized and polarizing.  I’ve been surprised by how fervent people are on both sides of the ideological divide. 

What do you think is the biggest issue facing genomics in the next decade?  In my view it’s the new suite of gene editing technologies that make genomic manipulation more accessible and more available than ever before, In particular, I believe there is an urgent need for social scientific research into the social, political and ethical impacts of this transformational technology. 

Finally, we’re all going out later for karaoke. What song do you sing and why?  Toto’s Africa – it’s my place and my song!