Come together right now (over CRC)

 “The Canada Research Chairs program is about creating new research collaborations—within your own university, but also nationally and internationally,” says Dr. Bill Whelan, Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Optics.

It’s clear Whelan takes his responsibility to heart; his newest research project brings together laser optical technology from Stanford University, a molecular beacon  invented at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, and an area of research that’s a specialty of AVC’s Maritime Quality Milk: bovine mastitis.

“Stanford has developed an optical sensor that is really cutting-edge in terms of biomedical research,” explains Whelan. “Dozens of tiny sensors sit on a chip that’s less than the size of a penny. These sensors search for early biomedical markers for diseases such as cancer.”

Princess Margaret’s role in the partnership is in the creation of a dye that acts as a molecular beacon.

“The molecule of dye is linked to a second molecule called a quencher—it turns the dye off. But in the presence of a specific protein that indicates the early stages of infection, the bond is broken, and the dye becomes active. The dye essentially lights up the affected tissues so the sensor can find it.”

The bond between quenching molecule and beacon is broken in the presence of infectionThe bond between quenching molecule and beacon is broken in the presence of infection

UPEI and Whelan’s role in the research is to find a practical application for the technology. Whelan looked around to see what areas of expertise we already have that would benefit from further development of the sensor technology.

“And I thought of Dr. Greg Keefe’s research on bovine mastitis,” says Whelan. “Dr Keefe has created a milk-sampling tool that allows farmers to make treatment decisions themselves, right on the farm. The goal of this new project is to detect a mastitis infection earlier before it affects the milk.”

These are early days for the project. Whelan’s lab is building a chip on which Stanford’s sensors will be mounted. He’s also working with Dr. Brian Wagner, whose research looks at dyes and fluorescence similar to the one developed by Princess Margaret Hospital, to see how small an amount of molecular beacon can be detected by the sensor.

This project is made possible by funding from the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations, and from Prince Edward Island’s Office of Bioscience and Economic Innovation.

UPEI researchers in the news, part six

This week: what it takes to keep immigrants in Prince Edward Island, sustainable pollination in blueberries, and “going Al Pacino” for the sake of civility.

Friday, October 9, Dr. Godfrey Baldacchino, Canada Research Chair in Island Studies, was a guest on CBC Radio’s Island Morning. As part of the program’s On the Line segment, Baldacchino responded to listener comments and questions about whether Prince Edward Island does enough to keep immigrants on the Island.

Saturday, October 10, CBC Radio’s Definitely Not The Opera produced a special on civility, and what better guide than UPEI’s Dr. Benet Davetian, author of Civility: A Cultural History. Davetian points out that we can't just passively sit back and expect good behaviour–sometimes we need to assert our right to be treated fairly and with civility. He cites one instance in which self-assertion not only brought him back a well-earned parking spot but helped teach the other party that civility pays off. Listen to the segment here (or download from the link at the top right of your screen).

 Monday, October 19, the Charlottetown Guardian wrote about a blueberry project Dr. James Kemp is involved with. Kemp is an Assistant Professor of Biology whose research involves pollination and floral morphology. This specific project is about ways to increase the value of blueberry crops on Prince Edward Island. Read the whole article here.

Research with a blindfold

Ask Dr. Laurie McDuffee, an equine surgeon, associate professor, and researcher at the Atlantic Veterinary College, how her most recent research project is coming along, and you get a surprising answer.

“I don’t know,” she says.

Horse-lovers, take comfort. Her answer has everything to do with her commitment to scientific objectivity.

McDuffee’s latest project aims to avoid what is currently an inevitable outcome for horses with broken leg bones: the animals are often euthanized.

“We’re in the middle of a study on a new technique to encourage bone-cell growth in horses,” explains McDuffee. “As a control in the experiment, half the fractures we’re dealing with have been treated, half have not.”

Untreated leg bone from pilot study: Note fracture point on the right side of the boneUntreated leg bone from pilot study: Note fracture point on the right side of the bone

McDuffee also needs to control her own objectivity in the study. If she knows which fracture has been treated and which hasn’t, it might skew how she looks at the results. Only one lab technician knows which horse has been treated.

“In effect, I’m working blindfolded,” McDuffee says with a smile.

McDuffee’s technique involves taking a sample of healthy donor tissue from a horse, growing bone cells from it in the lab, and injecting them into the site of a fractured bone of the same horse.

“In a pilot study, radiographic data showed the bones healed better with this treatment. The fracture healed faster, and had more bone tissue. I’d like to report the same is happening in the full study. Ask me again in the spring.”

Treated leg bone from pilot study: Note greater density of bone material at fractureTreated leg bone from pilot study: Note greater density of bone material at fracture

McDuffee’s lab is currently planning further study of this bone-healing technique in dogs. It could eventually have human applications.

“We’re working in comparative orthopedic research, not just equine,” says McDuffee.

Check back with the ORD Blog for future developments in McDuffee’s research. 

Lab coat on one hook, wet suit on another

Dr. Russell Kerr, UPEI’s Canada Research Chair in Marine Natural Products, recalls the moment his career first turned down the road he now confidently navigates. It was the early 1980s, and he was just beginning his post-doctoral studies at Stanford University.

“Do you scuba dive?” asked his new supervisor.

“No,” replied Kerr. “But I’d love to learn.”

The conversation was in the early 1980s; his supervisor was Dr. Carl Djerassi, who is sometimes referred to as the father of The Pill. Within a week, Kerr was enrolled in his first diving course. Ever since, he has explored the ocean floor for a sustainable source of bioactive compounds to be used in pharmaceuticals.

Several times a year, Kerr leads a dive team on a collection trip to harvest specific types of coral or sponge, or an exploration mission looking for new specimens. Often, his research takes him to Florida or the Bahamas. Since coming three years ago to UPEI, he’s started searching waters closer to home.

“Memorial University has a research station on Bonne Bay, Newfoundland,” explains Kerr. “And while a lot of exciting research is going on in the bay, no one has explored it yet for bioactive compounds.”

Access to a lab is crucial on these trips, as Kerr’s specimens need to be prepared on site before transporting them back to UPEI. Unlike many researchers in this field, Kerr focuses on the bacteria and fungi living on the corals and sponges rather than the corals and sponges themselves.

“It would be much simpler to freeze our specimens in liquid nitrogen and bring them home frozen,” says Kerr. “And we’ve tried that. We could extract five to ten types of bacteria per specimen that way. But preparing them on site, we bring back 50 to 100.”

Kerr’s lab recently applied for a U.S. patent for a process he’s developed to produce a group of compounds called pseudopterosins that are useful for cosmeceutical and pharmaceutical purposes.

“They have potent anti-inflammatory, anti-irritant, and anti-allergenic properties, and there is a fairly large market for them. There have been used in human trials but the trials have been stalled because, until now, the only source of the compounds has been wild corals.”

Kerr’s process could produce the compounds in a lab environment, eliminating the need for costly harvesting trips. It’s also a much more sustainable method of production.

This discovery has led to the creation of Nautilus Biosciences Canada, a private company of which Kerr is CEO. It’s in this role he recently was awarded the Premier’s Medal for Innovation.

Kerr says there is at least another year of lab work to refine the production process to a commercially viable level. In the meantime, his lab continues to explore the seabed for more exciting discoveries.

Rising Stars of Research

Congratulations to three UPEI undergraduate students who attended the University of British Columbia’s second annual Rising Stars of Research conference in Vancouver in August. Each was selected on the merits of his research to be part of an elite group of 100 of Canada’s up-and-coming researchers.

“The main event of the conference was definitely the poster competition,” explains Mark Robbins, a third-year Biology student studying under Dr. Tracy Doucette and Dr. Catherine Ryan. “We made posters detailing our projects. A whole day of the conference was set aside for displaying the posters, and making presentations to the judges.”

Robbin’s project, Altered Social Interaction in Adult Rats Following Neonatal Domoic Acid Treatment, can be viewed in pdf form here.

John Greenan, another of Dr. Doucette’s third-year Biology students, was also invited to the conference to present the poster of his project, Optimizing Parameters for Pre-pulse Inhibition Testing. 

“It was an honour to be there,” explains Greenan. “To be able as an undergraduate to present findings from my own research is pretty exciting.”

View Greenan’s poster here.

Jonathan Murley, a Mathematics student studying under Dr. Nasser Saad, received an honorable mention in the category of Computational Science and Technology for his project, Modeling radiation from a rectangular source.

Murley worked with a mathematical formula developed by Dr. Saad that can be used as a solution to a specific problem in radiation physics.

“Some of the previous methods used took a while to come to a solution,” says Murley. “This method is much quicker, and uses a more complicated class of function known as Appell hypergeometric functions.”

Murley’s poster can be viewed here.