$5 million for groundbreaking biopharmaceutical research

posted 3 February 2010
by Katie Chalmers-Brooks

When disease strikes, our body's first line of defence is typically the bloodstream, where antibodies are created to counterattack any uninvited guests. But sometimes these invaders go undetected and disease takes hold; in the case of cancer, tumors develop.

A growing area of treatment for cancer and other potentially deadly disorders is biopharmaceuticals, which provide patients with the disease-killing antibodies they aren't producing but require to fight back. These drugs, made of therapeutic human monoclonal antibodies (known as Mabs), are so in demand their global sales jumped from $300 million in 1997 to $25 billion in 2007.

Faculty of Science Microbiology professor Michael Butler is launching an extensive research network to establish the technology for the large-scale manufacture of Mabs. Today in Ottawa, federal Minister of Industry Tony Clement announced $5 million over five years to create this strategic alliance (known as MabNet). The grant is from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

"They are a new generation of drugs," said Butler. "Given the global importance of Mabs for both economic impact and future health care, it is vital that Canada maintains a stake in this industry."

Led by Butler, the network will initially involve 20 professors based in nine Canadian universities in collaboration with 12 Canadian biotechnology/pharmaceutical companies and three government institutions. The MabNet plan is to integrate efforts from key players in Canadian biotechnology from industry, government and academia.

Generally, conventional pharmaceuticals are chemical-based which can more easily be manufactured than biopharmaceuticals. The latter involves growing cells in cultures, a process that makes it more challenging to maintain consistency.

"This network will contribute to future developments in this important global market and, in the process, help those suffering from diseases like cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and coronary disease," said Roy Roshko, acting dean of science. "Dr. Butler is a pioneer in the research and development of mammalian cell technology and is the ideal candidate to lead such a network."

"This substantial funding from NSERC is testament to the strength of Dr. Butler's expertise in this growing field of scientific study," said Digvir Jayas, vice-president (research) at the University of Manitoba. "We will lead the way in developing this network that allows for the sharing of knowledge and exciting new collaborations."

NSERC is a federal agency that promotes discovery by funding more than 11, 800 professors every year and fosters innovation by encouraging more than 1,500 Canadian companies to participate and invest in post-secondary research projects.