Replay: Lab coat on one hook, wet suit on an another

In honour of today's announcement celebrating a new partnership between UPEI and Nautilus Biosciences Canada, the ORD Blog is replaying a post from October 2009 about the research of Dr. Russell Kerr. Enjoy! 

Read the original post below (or here). Read about today's announcement here.


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.