||Two researchers who helped unlock the molecular secrets of things ranging from barley to SARS win top innovation award, a first for the U of M Physics professors Kenneth Standing and Werner Ens. Standing and Ens won the Manning Innovation Award, because they advanced a tool many biological researchers rely upon to study diseases such as SARS.
|They are the first University of Manitoba professors to win the Encana Principal Award, the highest honour bestowed by the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation, which has been recognizing and encouraging innovation in Canada since 1982. The award is given to Canadians who have demonstrated recent innovative talent in developing and successfully marketing a new concept, process or procedure. A Manitoban has not won the Principal Award since U of M alumnus Frank Gunston did in 1989.
The announcement was made on Friday, September 3rd, at the Fort Garry Hotel and the physicists will receive the $100,000 award at a gala in Ottawa on September 17th.
“We are extremely proud of these outstanding University of Manitoba researchers,” said David Barnard, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manitoba. “They conducted some truly remarkable work and through their collaboration with the University’s Technology Transfer Office and industry partners they have contributed to improved diagnostics and also to our understanding of how our bodies work at the molecular level. Receiving this prestigious national award is a well-deserved honour for this research team.”
Standing and Ens won for advancing the field of time-of-flight mass spectrometry. Mass spectrometry is a tool used to identify compounds and their chemical composition. To do this, the molecules of the substance must be vaporized and ionized (charged), and then manipulated in electromagnetic fields to reveal their mass, and the masses of their fragments. Standing and Ens introduced significant improvements in the way the ions are cooled and injected into a time-of-flight mass spectrometer after their rather violent production, allowing for a clearer picture of a compound's composition. This enables analysis of more complex mixtures with better sensitivity to trace amounts of the molecules of interest.
Time-of-flight mass spectrometry has existed since the 1940s but it was in the 1970s, with better computers and electronics, and a new kind of ion source, that it became practical for biological applications. That's when Standing left nuclear physics for mass spectrometry, and in 1979, was joined by Werner Ens, then a graduate student.
Over the years, advances in ion sources and mass spectrometers, including those of Standing and Ens, have allowed the analysis of larger and larger biological molecules, like proteins. As a result, mass spectrometry is now a pivotal tool in the new field of proteomics, the attempt to identify the structure and abundance of all of the proteins in an organism, just as genomics seeks to identify all of the genes.
Proteins are the cellular workhorses of all living things. They are built according to the genome’s instructions and they do all the work in the cell, and when they fail, disease may result. Studying proteins is of tremendous importance to our understanding of biological processes, and in designing more effective clinical diagnostic tools and pharmaceuticals. The machines Standing and Ens develop help contribute to this process.
In 2003 members of the Standing/Ens research team helped identify and characterize key proteins of the SARS virus using mass spectrometry techniques, weeks before its genome was fully sequenced. Instruments using the Manitoba innovations have also been employed in a wide range of proteomics research, including drug development and disease studies, as well as agricultural applications. The research group has participated in projects that evaluate of cancer treatments, study of tissue transplant rejection, aim to understand disease resistance in wheat, and recently, in a project that is developing improved methods of biofuel production.
Dr. John Wilkins is the Director of the Manitoba Centre for Proteomics and Systems Biology and a U of M professor. He conducts a wide range of studies in biology, including biomedical research. He said: "What Ken and Werner have done with the instruments that they've developed is to make it really practical for biologists such as myself to be able to probe biological systems in a way that I never thought would be feasible within the lifetime of my scientific career."
The Standing-Ens research team continues to provide mass spectrometry technologies that are being developed and licensed even today.
The University’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO) helped bring Drs. Standing and Ens’s innovations to the marketplace, working with industry partners to patent it in Canada, the US, and Europe.
“The Technology Transfer Office is privileged to work with innovative faculty across our campus. For decades, the Standing/Ens research team has trained superb scientists, published significant findings and has generated important discovery upon important discovery. We applaud their fine work, and we value the close relationship that we have built over the years,” says Gary Breit, executive director of the Technology Transfer Office.
With the help of the TTO, Standing and Ens have developed numerous successful collaborations, most notably with AB Sciex, which led to the development of the highly successful QStar mass spectrometers, incorporating the Manitoba innovations. Between 2000 and 2009 over 500 of these instruments were sold, generating over $300 million in total sales revenue.