“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.”
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.