Research with and without SCUBA gear

“I can’t lie,” says a tanned Rebecca Pike, just recently returned from a research trip to Florida and the Bahamas.  “It is an incredible experience to be diving on reefs in the middle of paradise. But more than that, I love that I’m collecting my own samples that I’ll work on myself in the lab. From start to finish, it’s my project.”

Pike is one of UPEI’s eleven Innovation PEI Graduate and Post-doctoral Fellows. Her project is called Fungal and Bacterial Diversity and Natural Products Drug Discovery from Marine Gorgonian Corals and Sponges.

Her work isn’t all SCUBA gear and tropical weather. In the lab, Pike explores the microbial diversity within corals and sponges, and the bacteria that grow on them for production of natural products.

Pike works under the supervision of UPEI’s Dr. Russell Kerr, Canada Research Chair in Marine Natural Products, winner of the Premier’s Medal for Innovation, and CEO of Nautilus Biosciences Canada. His research group is developing sustainable methods of extracting pharmaceutical agents from marine organisms.

“After my undergrad, I spent some time working at a lab in Panama, doing very similar work on cyanobacteria. I was invited on a collection trip but wasn’t a yet certified diver. So, all of the samples I gathered on that trip were collected via snorkeling. I became certified in SCUBA diving at the end of that trip, which is why I was able to go on this collections trip in Florida and the Bahamas.”

After completing her undergraduate studies in Pennsylvania, Pike went searching for a school to complete her graduate studies. She found Dr. Kerr’s website at UPEI.

“And based on the fascinating research projects, I immediately knew it was the one. Plus, it’s a small school with a big lab. I couldn’t get this kind of personal attention or hands-on experience at a bigger university.”

Blueberry Haze: The Jenn Slemmer Experience

“As scientists, we’re not trained to believe old wives’ tales,” says Jenn Slemmer, leaning back in her chair in her office in the top floor of Dalton Hall.  She sports a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt under a lab coat.  “I don’t believe an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Slemmer is one of UPEI’s eleven winners in the province’s Innovation PEI Graduate and Post-Doctoral Fellowships.  She’s continuing work this fall on a project called “Validation of potential human health benefits of functional foods produced on Prince Edward Island.”

“But if someone could prove apples kept the doctor away, I’d be lined up at the apple cart every morning.  That’s what we’re trying to do with blueberries – validate some of the claims made about them.”

Slemmer says she sees blueberry products in her local grocery store that promise to lower your blood pressure, improve the health of your heart, even help stave off cancer.

“The current evidence for most of the claims are either weak or non-existent,” Slemmer explains.  “If we could validate some of them using real science, wouldn’t that be fantastic for blueberry growers and producers of blueberry products on Prince Edward Island?”

Slemmer supervisors in this project are Dr. Marva Sweeney-Nixon, and Dr. Katherine Gottshall Pass.  Their research into the benefits of eating blueberries has recently received some excellent coverage in the media.
“It’s such an exciting project to be working on, including the first ever clinical test on humans at UPEI,” says Slemmer.  “We had two groups of men with a moderate risk of heart disease and hypertension.  One group drank a cup of blueberry juice every day for three weeks.  We gave the other a placebo.  In that short amount of time, the blueberry group showed trends towards improved metabolic parameters including insulin and glucose levels.”

Slemmer says there is still much work to be done, and many questions as yet unanswered.

“If one cup of blueberries is good, is three better?” she asks.  “We don’t know.  Do you get the same positive effect by eating blueberry jam, or even pie?  Cooking the blueberries kills the vitamin C; we don’t know whether it affects the other benefits.”

The project looks also at two other foods with a reputation for similar health benefits: cranberries and rosehips.

“Cranberries are already grown extensively on the Island; validating claims about them would be great for the industry.  And roses can grow on land that’s normally thought to be unproductive.  When you live on an Island, farmland is a finite source.  If rosehips became a viable product, suddenly a whole lot of unusable land would become productive.”

Quality research, quality mussels (everyone wins)

Sarah Stewart-Clark holds up a plastic cup to get a better look at the contents.  Suspended inside is a disgusting-looking blob.  It’s a relatively new invasive aquatic species to Prince Edward Island called a tunicate.

“The first tunicates showed up in our bays in 1998,” says Stewart-Cark.  “We now have four species living here.  It’s a big problem for our mussel industry.”

Stewart-Clark is one of UPEI’s eleven winners of the province’s Innovation PEI Graduate and Post-Doctoral Fellowships.  She begins work this fall on a project called “Development of molecular markers to evaluate the impact of tunicate mitigation treatments on mussel gene expression and health.”

“Prince Edward Island produces 80 per cent of the mussels consumed in North America,” explains Stewart-Clark.  “It’s an important industry for the Island, and these tunicates are a serious threat.  They grow right on the mussels and farming gear, and increase in population much quicker than the mussels do.”

Mussels grow on long strands of material hanging down from the surface of the water called socks.  Stewart-Clark says it usually takes just one person to lift a sock full of mussels from the water.

“A sock infected with tunicates can take up to four people to lift,” she explains.  “It’s that bad.  And until now, it’s been impossible to know if your farm is infected until it’s too late.”

Stewart-Clark’s doctoral research helped develop a test for larval and pre-larval stages of tunicate in the waste water of mussel processing plants.  Her next project focuses on the process of getting rid of the tunicates once they arrive – specifically, whether the techniques to remove them have a negative effect on the mussels.

“The current treatments for tunicates include blasting them with fresh water, or hauling the infected socks through troughs filled with lime — neither of which is very effective.”

Other researchers at AVC are developing new, innovative techniques to remove or kill the tunicates.  Using a new piece of equipment called a mussel microarray, Stewart-Clark can monitor the gene activity within the mussel at the genome level during those tunicate treatments.

“We can ensure the mussels aren’t being overstressed by the treatments in a way that would compromise the quality of the mussels.  I think it’s very exciting to be involved in research that has an impact on the people who live and work on the Island.  It’s what drew me to it in the first place.”

Sarah Stewart-Clark’s supervisors in this project are
Dr. Jeff Davidson and Dr. Spencer Greenwood.

Connecting the bioscience dots

Steven Casper scrolls his computer mouse through a number of files displayed on the screen of his laptop.  He’s looking for something to illustrate a point.       

Casper is the 2009 UPEI Fulbright Visiting Chair in Biomedical Science.  He’s the Director of the Master of Bioscience Program at the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California, and he’s spending four months on P.E.I. examining the Island’s growing bioscience cluster.

“Here it is,” he says, clicking on a file.

A white screen pops up displaying thousands of colourful dots and lines.  It looks almost like the spirograph pictures you drew as a kid, but not quite as symmetrical.

“This is a map of the social networks within the bioscience industry in San Diego, California,” he explains.  “Each of these dots represents a person; each group of dots a company.  The lines between each dot represent a relationship or collaboration.”
The picture is a tangled mess.  Dozens of lines dash back and forth across the screen connecting each company to almost all the others.  Casper says this represents a healthy, dynamic bioscience cluster.

“But take a look at this,” he says, clicking open  another file.  Compared to the previous screen, it’s neat and tidy.  There are several company clusters, but no lines connecting them. 

“This is Los Angeles – a place you’d think would have a thriving bioscience cluster.  But the companies aren’t making connections.  It’s not a very sustainable model.”

Casper has spent the last several months gathering data in P.E.I. to map the Island’s bioscience cluster.   

“It’s too soon to make conclusions, but there are trends I can see already.  The companies here are all connected, and work together well.  That’s good.  But almost all of them connect back to government agencies, like ACOA, for funding.  There’s no venture capital here, and only a few angel investors.”

More positively, Casper points out the recent addition of some multi-national companies to the mix, bringing with them some much-needed private money, international connections and innovation.
“Ten years will make a big difference.  These are early days for P.E.I.”

Casper will present his findings next month at the 2009 UPEI Fulbright Lecture, entitled “The PEI Bioscience Cluster: On the Road to Sustainability?”  It will be held August 7th at 3 p.m. in the Alex H. MacKinnon Auditorium in UPEI’s McDougall Hall.

The ORD Blog will be there, and will podcast the lecture at a later date.

"…a bit of my history, a bit of my future."

Most people would find it difficult to make a connection between growing up on a farm in South Melville, PEI and working in a sterile lab in UPEI's K. C.  Irving Chemistry Centre.  Donald Cameron is not most people.

Cameron is one of UPEI's eleven winners of the province's first ever Innovation PEI Graduate and Post-Doctoral Fellowships.  He's continuing work this summer on a project called Erithitol-based Cores for Biodegradable Materials.

The world is hungry for products which are friendly to the environment, and the pharmaceutical industry is no exception.  Cameron and his team are developing a new polymer (think of a plastic made without petroleum) that could be embedded with a drug, then set to release that drug into the body at a specific rate. 

"Slow and steady for something like anti-inflammatory medication," says Cameron, "or rapid, for anti-cancer treatments."

Cameron says he was immediately drawn to the green aspects of this project.

"We can change the properties of the polymers to make them start to break down when they're exposed to specific things like light or rain — something they shouldn't be exposed to until they're in a landfill.  And the polymers are made from corn and sugar beets.  Adding agriculture to an environmentally friendly project is like mixing a bit of my history, a bit of my future."

The ORD Blog will profile more of our Innovation PEI Grad and Post-doc fellows in the coming weeks.