Turning scientific discoveries into real-world applications has been a longstanding practice. Two offices at McGill aim to make the process more effective by capitalizing very specifically on their partners’ strengths and areas of expertise. //
By Victoria Leenders-Cheng
In November 2013, McGill biomedical engineering professor Jay Nadeau took part in the scientific equivalent of an episode of Dragon’s Den. AmorChem, a local venture capital fund focused on investing in life sciences research originating in Quebec, was experimenting with a new approach to evaluating funding proposals and Nadeau was invited to be a contestant.
Unlike traditional calls for proposal, which require lengthy documentation and presentations, this event, held in Quebec City, featured five researchers each giving a brief talk to a panel of well-known scientists. From the fray, one researcher would emerge victorious and receive funding for his or her project.
“We all had five minutes to present our proposals, without using any slides and then we had seven minutes for questions,” recalls Nadeau, adding with a smile, “It was kind of a sporting event.”
Throughout the competition process, Nadeau was guided by the Commercialization Office at McGill, which aims to help professors with a research product or method that they would like to bring to the market. The office, led by associate director Michèle Beaulieu, connects researchers with opportunities such as AmorChem’s call for funding proposals, and also provides support for the complex process of evaluating the commercial potential of research, negotiating licenses, starting spin-offcompanies and obtaining patents or other protection for intellectual property.
Nadeau has been studying the biological effects of nanoparticles since she arrived at McGill from CalTech almost a decade ago and her AmorChem submission described the possibilities of using gold particle nanotechnology to fight melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer caused by DNA damage, usually from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun.
“Melanoma is the fastest growing cancer worldwide, especially among the baby boom generation and in countries with a high number of Caucasians,” Nadeau explains. There are nearly 70,000 new cases and more than 8,000 deaths in the United States from melanoma each year. What’s more, melanoma is considered a Category 5 cancer, for which no effective chemotherapy is available.
Nadeau and her team, however, had uncovered promising research results in their lab at McGill. By conjugating (binding) gold nanoparticles to chemotherapeutic drugs for melanoma such as doxorubicin and dabrafenib, they found that these drugs demonstrated gains in efficacy: they became more stable, more available to the body and more soluble for delivery through the bloodstream.
Nadeau’s pitch did not win the competition but the AmorChem panel found her idea appealing and named her the runner-up, offering to fund her research as well. Building these bridges between academic research and potential applications is a vital undertaking, says Nadeau.
“Last year, when I was on sabbatical, I worked with a lot of clinicians and many of them told me that they are often very frustrated because they never see academic research turned into something people can use.”
Indeed, programs and organizations such as Mitacs and ACCT Canada have long sought to foster partnerships between government, business and academia. In November 2013, the Canada Foundation for Innovation launched a searchable online directory to connect research centres with business partners. Called Navigator, it is billed as the first tool of its kind in North America.
It is with these initiatives in mind that the McGill University Business Engagement Centre (MUBEC) is entering the scene.
MUBEC’s mission is to promote outreach and coordination between the University and its potential partners, be they for commercial, philanthropic, recruitment, internship or executive education opportunities. Specific to one institution and devoted to helping make sense (and cents) of the powerful, sprawling, complex and innovative resources at McGill, the centre is also the first of its kind in Canada.
“Companies have been asking for a single point-of-entry for partnering with McGill,” says MUBEC director Jean-François Nadeau. “By developing an in-depth understanding of our partners’ needs and strategic objectives, MUBEC is able to suggest opportunities, projects and educational services across the University — opportunities that they may not have known even existed.”
Recently, the centre helped coordinate the partnership between dentistry professor Simon Tran, and BioGen Idec, a biotechnology company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
BioGen is a leading developer of pharmaceutical drugs that treat autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis. As part of its research development, BioGen scientists were hoping to study how white blood cells behave under certain conditions, to gain a better understanding of the body’s immune system response. In this case, they wanted to examine how white blood cells attack salivary cells and so needed to grow salivary cells in culture. Seeking an expert to provide them with advice on the process, the BioGen team reached out to Tran.
“Salivary cells are difficult to grow,” Tran explains, describing how the cell culture is easily overtaken by common connective tissue cells known as fibroblasts. “If you start with 10 fibroblast cells and 10 salivary cells, after a week, the culture will be overgrown with 95 percent fibroblast cells. It takes a lot of patience to then purify the salivary cells.”
Holder of the Canada Research Chair in craniofacial stem cells and tissue engineering, Tran had published a paper 10 years ago on how to grow salivary gland cells and MUBEC’s corporate relations managers suggested that Tran train the BioGen staffin his lab at McGill on this particular method of cell culture.
The BioGen staffvisited Tran twice in 2013, each time for about a week and Tran taught them using the same method he uses for teaching his students: “Everyone goes through the same process,” he said. “See one; do one (or, I prefer, many times); teach one.”
In other words, everyone watches the process of growing the cells once, performs the process at least once, and then teaches it to someone else. By the end of the second week, the BioGen researchers had acquired the expertise necessary to grow salivary cells in vitro back in their own lab in Cambridge.
BioGen is not the only McGill partner interested in finding new treatments for multiple sclerosis. In December 2013, AmorChem signed a partnership agreement with biochemistry professor Philippe Gros to finance research that explores new avenues for treating neuroinfl ammatory conditions such as MS.
This shared interest is a testament to the urgent need for new therapies for the disease. MS affects more than 2.5 million people and Canadians have one of the highest rates of MS in the world. A complex illness characterized by bodily infl ammation that leads to the gradual destruction of the myelin sheath that surrounds and protects the body’s nerve fibers, MS is currently incurable.
“My group uses genetic analysis of animal models of infection to identify key genes, proteins, cells, and pathways that are activated in pathological situations such as neural inflammation,” Gros explains. “With modern tools of genomics, we can identify what gene carries the mutation and which gene inactivation protects against the inflammation. The idea is that if we can mimic this in humans, we can potentially identify new targets for anti-inflammatory drugs.”
Gros hopes his research leads to a better understanding of the process of inflammation, with both academic and commercial applications.
“We study many genes and proteins, all of them very interesting from an academic standpoint,” he says. “If we run into something that looks like it could be interesting as a pharmacological product, we take the opportunity to explore the possibility of using it in that context. For other genes that we work on, we incorporate it into our fundamental research.”
Biomedical engineering professor Jay Nadeau points out that the commercialization process is often a continuation of basic research. “Clearly, we did a lot of basic science conjugating gold nanoparticles to get to this point,” she explains. “Now it’s more about the product, and part of the presentation to AmorChem was to convince them that we are willing to embark on this task of bringing the research to market.”
Gros adds that the relationship between pure and applied research can be intricate. “Even when we have agreements with partners for commercialization or industrial applications, we always keep in those agreements the ability to publish our results,” he says. “We are an academic institution and we are not turning ourselves into a service provider — we maintain our academic and teaching mission.”
Nevertheless, he notes that in an era of limited funding for scientific research, partnerships such as those with AmorChem “provide a very significant funding envelope and allow us to do research while building value into what we do.”
For Simon Tran, the collaboration with MUBEC and BioGen was both “a good way to learn how industry works” and an immediate reminder that “what scientists are doing in the lab can be useful for development of a drug or for other applications.”
As hubs of innovation and research, universities have always been active players in applied research, be it through community initiatives, industry partnerships, or patent applications. The Commercialization Office and MUBEC take a second look at the relationships between a university and its partners, and offer a new vision of how collaboration can take place.
McGill, meet the world at large.
World at large, meet McGill. ■
Michèle Beaulieu, Associate Director
Jean-François Nadeau, Senior Director