Watch the 2009 UPEI Fulbright Lecture

Dr. Steven Casper, UPEI's 2009 Visiting Fulbright Chair in Biomedical Science, recently delivered his lecture, "The P.E.I. Bioscience Cluster: on the road to sustainability?", to a receptive audience in UPEI's Alex H. MacKinnon Auditorium. 

Casper is an internationally renowned expert in comparison of emerging technology clusters.  He spent the past four months mapping the social networks within Prince Edward Island's bioscience cluster.  The full video of his lecture is after the jump.

If the slides are a little tricky to see on your computer, download them here and follow along.

For more information on Dr. Casper's work at UPEI, read this earlier ORD Blog post.

Getting to the bottom of an oil sands lake

“When I first visited this area near Fort McMurray about 12 years ago, people called it the Valley of Death,” explains Dr. Michael van den Heuvel, pointing to a photo on his computer screen of a desolate, northern landscape. His mouth draws to a slight grin. “Now that the land has been reclaimed as pasture, forest and wetland, they call it South Bison Pond.” 

 Van den Heuvel is a Canada Research Chair in Watershed Ecological Integrity, and a fellow of the Canadian Rivers Institute. He’s currently working with his co-investigator, Dr. Natacha Hogan, an assistant professor in Biology and associate fellow of the Canadian Rivers Institute, on a project called Investigation of the Potential of Oil Sands Process-Affected Waters to Impact Fish Populations through Immune Suppression, supported by NSERC, and several industry partners working in the Alberta Oil Sands.

“After oil is extracted from the oil sands, the waste left over is called tailings,” says van den Heuvel. “The remediation plan for the area includes the construction of more than 20 artificial lakes, with these tailings forming the bottom of the lakes.”

The team’s work centres on two test ponds – one named Demonstration Pond, the other South Bison.

“We released yellow perch into those two ponds in 1995, and came back a year later to measure what effect the tailings had on their reproductive health,” remembers van den Heuvel. “I was surprised to find no effect, whatsoever. But, the fish were much more prone to a condition called fin erosion, and there was a higher incidence of disease.”

Many of the fish developed a viral lesion — not a terribly attractive affliction, but Hogan explains it’s not a serious condition.

 “It doesn’t affect life expectancy, or negatively affect other health indicators. Still, we’d like to know what’s causing the increased incidence, and see if there’s anything we can do to prevent it.”

Van den Heuvel and Hogan will recreate the environment in their laboratory at UPEI, using water shipped from the ponds. For now, instead of yellow perch, they will study rainbow trout.

“It just so happens the genes we need to study are already mapped out in rainbow trout,” says Hogan. “We can see which are being turned on and off in response to whatever is in the ponds. That sort of information isn’t available yet for yellow perch.”

Van den Heuvel points out these are early days in the research, and there are still several questions they need answers for.

 “For instance,” he says, “there are also fathead minnows living in these ponds that don’t have an increased incidence of this disease. One explanation could be the short life cycle of the minnows: there have been 12 or more generations of minnows in these ponds. Maybe they’ve adapted to the environment. Maybe different species have different sensitivities . That’s part of what we’re trying to understand.”

Van den Heuvel will travel back to Fort McMurray next month to continue his work.

Updated: UPEI researchers in the news

If you wanted to know this week why tourists are staying away from P.E.I., whether the Island’s growing group of bioscience companies might be our ticket to the new economy, and why lady bugs seem to have developed a bit of a mean streak, UPEI was your place to find answers.

 Paul Lewis, the Director of Research at the Tourism Research Centre, spoke with Halifax’s Chronicle Herald about a drop in tourism numbers this summer on P.E.I. (Blame it on the weather and the economy). Read the whole story here.

Karen Mair, host of CBC Radio’s Island Morning, was chased off the beach this weekend by what seemed to be a band of angry lady bugs (or beetles, as she came to learn). UPEI Masters in Biology student Megan Marriott set her straight. Hear the interview here. Megan studies under UPEI’s Donna Giberson.

In advance of his 2009 UPEI Fulbright Lecture, Dr. Steven Casper spoke with CBC Radio’s Maritime Noon about the sustainability of the Island’s emerging bioscience cluster.  Listen to the interview here.  For more information on Dr. Casper’s work, read this past ORD blog post about him.

*UPDATED 10 August with link to Maritime Noon podcast.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nokton/

Bovine, heal thyself

 “Doctors don’t treat every infection that walks in the door with an antibiotic,” explains Dr. Greg Keefe. “They know the body’s immune system is designed to take care of many of them. That’s the type of wisdom we’re trying to bring to the dairy industry.”

Keefe is director of Maritime Quality Milk, and one of UPEI’s two Innovation PEI Industry Research Chairs

“Right now, if a dairy cow develops mastitis, it’s automatic: the cow is put on antibiotics,” says Keefe. “But almost half the cases of mastitis can be cleared up without antibiotics. So what we needed was a simple way for farmers to determine whether their infected cows need treatment or not.”

The result is the On-farm Mastitis Treatment Decision System. Each test includes what looks like a small sheet of paper (called Petrifilm), and instructions.

“The farmer puts a sample of milk on the film. In 24 hours, the sample is cultured to the point that it’s clear whether the cow needs antibiotics or not.”

Last year, Keefe’s team, including graduate student Dr. Kim MacDonald, sent the kits to 54 farms across Canada. Each used them for one year to determine whether or not to treat their infected cows. MacDonald and Keefe are now analyzing the data being sent back by the farmers.

“It’s really encouraging,” says Keefe. “Forty per cent of infected cows showed to have a type of infection that the cow’s immune system could deal with on its own. And the test seems to be 95 per cent accurate.”

Keefe says farmers understand the benefits of these tests. The first is economic.

“Consider that the antibiotics cost between $8 and $12 per case treated. Add about $150 in lost milk production because you have to discard the milk for a week. Now compare that to the cost of our test; it’s only $8,” explains Keefe. “But I don’t want to give the impression that farmers are only thinking of money. They want to be good stewards of this resource. They’re very aware of the potential problem of antibiotic resistance, and they don’t want to be adding to it.”