I’ll begin the FSR this week with a few comments regarding some investigational work coming from the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health. Professors Dr. Peter Singer and Dr. Abdallah Daar, and PhD student Ken Simiyu, traveled to Africa to better understand why commercialization in the biotechnology and healthcare industry has been so poor of late.
Stagnant Technologies Need Stimulus
University of Toronto ♦ Published in Science, Dec. 10, 2010
After visiting some 23 academic institutions in six countries and interviewing 39 scientists, researchers have dug up some of the underlying issues preventing Africa’s biotechnological innovations from migrating to commercial success. Although previous studies in Africa have analyzed health innovation at the country level there has never been a systematic evaluation highlighting the troubles of specific technologies. Some of the technologies identified in the study include traditional plant products, new chemical entities, diagnostics, vaccines, and medical devices. In their travels the group came across some very interesting technologies indeed; researchers at the University of Ghana are developing a visually readable point of care diagnostic that uses monoclonal antibodies to detect the malaria parasite in urine; other work from Tanzania’s National Institute for Medical Research is being invested in the development of novel extraction techniques, specifically those to extract and purify artemisinin from the plant Artemisia annua for the preparation of derivatives to fight artemisinin resistance in malarial therapy. So why aren’t these technologies making a move towards market? A number of reasons. The mindsets of many researchers interviewed were simply not commercially oriented, with most scientists focusing on teaching and publishing to disseminate knowledge. Finding funding for validation studies of early stage technologies is another issue. African scientists need support from institutional investors but there are very few African funds in existence that support the biotechnology and healthcare space. Other issues identified by interviewees included a lack of commercially oriented government policy, poorly understood intellectual property regimes, and regulatory red tape. Peter Singer previously identified three areas that would help spur technology development in Africa: proof-of-concept funds, networks to link scientists and entrepreneurs together, and innovation centres that provide shared research infrastructure. Some have proposed establishing ‘Life Sciences Innovation Centres’ throughout Africa. These would serve a similar purpose as MaRS, here in Toronto, and the newly proposed Clerk-Maxwell Centres in the UK, with the goal of uniting researchers, industry, and entrepreneurs to accelerate commercial development of life science assets. This integrative approach is catching on, and could be the ingredient that will remedy the static nature of Africa’s commercial environment in the life sciences sector.
RD3 at the Root of Congenital Blindness
University of British Columbia ♦ Published in PNAS, Dec. 7, 2010
The protein RD3, previously of unknown function, has been implicated in the development of Leber Congenital Amaurosis Type 12 (LCA12). The disease is characterized by rapid degeneration of the photoreceptor cells during fetal development leading to blindness at birth or in the first year of life. Dr. Robert Molday and his team at the Centre for Macular Research show that RD3 interacts with two different forms of guanylate cyclase, GC1 and GC2, mediating their export from the endoplasmic reticulum. GC1 and GC2 are essential for the production of cGMP — a secondary messenger of phototransduction — and in their absence cGMP production is impaired. Dr. Molday believes that LCA12 may be caused by cGMP deficiency which leads to constitutive closure of cGMP gated calcium channels. Proper gradients of calcium across the membranes of photoreceptor cells is likely required for their long-term survival.
New Target for Chronic Pain Unveiled
University of Toronto ♦ Published in Science, Dec. 3, 2010
Synaptic plasticity is the ability of neural connections to vary in strength based on the extent of use or disuse of a neural pathway. This characteristic of the nervous system is key to the process of learning and memorizing sensory experiences, and it is also believed to play a role in pathological pain. Most researchers have focused on proteins that lead to synaptic plasticity as opposed to those that maintain synaptic plasticity over the long-term. A new study led by Dr. Min Zhuo implicates protein kinase M zeta (PKMξ) in the maintenance of chronic pain. Peripheral damage in a mouse model upregulated PKMξ in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain known to be involved in the onset of chronic pain. Zhou went on to show that microinjections of a PKMξ inhibitory peptide ZIP into the anterior cingulate cortex dampened synaptic potentiation and behavioural sensitization. This research uncovers an excellent target for chronic pain.