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This op-ed on Canadian biotechnology and the knowledge economy appeared in The Hill-Times (subscription required), Canada’s politics and government newsweekly, September 9:

Obesity, cancer, heart disease and stroke, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, or the more general stresses of an aging population: no matter which area of concern holds our collective gaze from moment to moment, improving health outcomes and healthcare is the No. 1 challenge for the world’s economy.

Canada has the holistic approach and translational research necessary to address health care’s pervasive challenges, with particular strengths in biotechnology.

In 2007, the Government of Canada made advancing translational research a top priority through the Science and Technology Strategy, with emphasis on cancer, metabolic disorders and, most recently, neurology, as part of the government’s response to the burdensome realities of neurodegenerative disorders.

Scientific research has made significant progress in unraveling the underlying causes of disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, but translating these findings into useful clinical treatments is the key to attaining meaningful accomplishments. Only clinical treatment successes will alleviate pressure on the economy.

Transformational research is the essential first step in this process, but even more importantly, it needs to be put in the hands of those who can translate it into realistic and useful outcomes for patients in particular and society in general.

Thanks to research analytics that capture publications, citations, and other significant metrics, we know Canadian researchers punch above their weight, particularly in medical research. Canada’s challenge is not the quality or quantity of our research ideas but our ability to commercialize those ideas and translate them into market-ready products.

Aware of and concerned by this gap between fundamental basic research and useful patient, social, and economic outcomes, the Canadian government established the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR) program in 2007. Part of the internationally-recognized Networks of Centres of Excellence suite of programs, the CECR program is a unique collaboration between the three federal granting agencies (the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), along with Industry Canada, and Health Canada.

Designed to bridge the challenging gap between innovation and commercialization, the CECR program matches clusters of research expertise with the business community to share the knowledge and resources that bring innovations to market faster.

MaRS Innovation was among the first CECRs to be created in 2008, largely based on the founding belief of its members that Toronto is a fertile research land for precisely this kind of translational activity.

Since my arrival in Canada in 2009, I have certainly found this to be true. Toronto conducts extensive, world-class medical research within the University of Toronto and its 10 affiliated hospitals, not to be outdone by York University, Ryerson University, and the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research.

By banding together to form and support MaRS Innovation, these 16 institutions accepted the common goal of cracking some of medicine’s most challenging enigmas.

Our collective mission is to overcome the innovator’s classic valley of death for disruptive technologies in major areas of concern, such as early detection of medical disorders as well as personalized medicine in which the most effective treatments are tailored according to the profile of individual patients and their needs.

Consider the rise of Xagenic Inc., one of the first companies to enter MaRS Innovation’s portfolio and access our seed funding and expertise, such as technology development, intellectual property protection and business development. Founded by two of the University of Toronto’s leading scientists, Shana Kelley and Ted Sargent, Xagenic’s disruptive technology rapidly, efficiently and cost-effectively detects and diagnoses infectious diseases.

Qiagen, a prominent European diagnostics tools developer, has already recognized the value of Xagenic’s technological approach by making a significant investment in the company. Xagenic, which is based in Toronto and now employs 22 people in HQP positions, will be honored September 9 with a MaRS Innovation Trailblazer Award for translating their invention into a functional prototype and closing a Series A financing round in less than four years.

It’s important to note that Xagenic’s technology strengths are based on breakthrough scientific discoveries in two disciplines: genomics and nano-chemistry. This combined expertise, along with federal research funding that supported the foundational research, have produced an ideal tool for improved disease detection that may one day benefit all Canadians.

Most importantly, Xagenic is merely the first of the many biotech seedlings Canada needs to revitalize the biotech industry in this country.

Canada also demonstrates considerable leadership in developing biological therapeutics, a class of pharmaceutical drugs also known as biologicals, as safer and more targeted treatments for complicated disorders.

One key example is Enobia’s treatment of a rare skeletal disorder, which just sold for over a $1-billion, but this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg that includes Quest Pharmatech, Viron and MedicagoCadiome.

MaRS Innovation’s portfolio includes many examples of how start-up companies are translating transformational scientific discoveries into promising biologicals. Encycle Therapeutics, Vasomune Therapeutics, DLVR Therapeutics and Kapplex Inc. provide growing evidence that Toronto’s scientific community is adapting to the requirements of innovation-based economy and working to produce a more cost-effective health-care environment.

Yet, while many Canadian discoveries have led to the launch of blockbuster drugs, these successes are often preceded by U.S.-based acquisitions from biopharmaceutical players. Abgenix was acquired by Amgen, Enobia by Alexion and ID Biomedical by GSK to name a few significant instances of what can be a frequent outcome for Canadian medical research.

Now is the time to use these commercialization building blocks to create Canadian-based biopharmas and revitalize the sector to address the innovation agenda and create jobs, expertise and know-how for Canada.

Special thanks to Hans Posthuma of the Networks of Centres of Excellence for his assistance in placing this piece.

Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, marketing and communications manager.

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