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Apr 1, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 7)

Saskatchewan Looks Past AgBiotech Roots

Canadian Province Puts Genomic Background to Use in Biopharma

  • Located in Canada’s heartland, Saskatchewan is recognized for its agricultural biotechnology and livestock genomics. With about half of Saskatchewan’s land devoted to agriculture, it’s not surprising that the province’s biotechnology companies have agricultural roots. Phenomenome Discoveries, which specializes in metabolomics profiling, is an exception.

    Neuroscientist Dayan Goodenowe, Ph.D., developed mass spectrometry methods to perform comprehensive analyses of metabolites in biological samples. The patented process and supporting bioinformatics form the metabolomics biomarker platform at Phenomenome Discoveries, which Dr. Goodenowe and John Hyshka cofounded in Saskatoon in 2000.

    The company’s first product is a serum-based biomarker test for colon cancer. Canadian physicians are testing the screening method to see how it compares to colonoscopy results. Patient samples are sent to Phenomenome, where the high-throughput test is performed. “We want to position it as a precolonoscopy screening tool to select patients who are at high risk for colon cancer,” says Alix Hayden, director of business development.

    The goal is to better allocate expensive colonoscopy resources and select patients who will benefit most from the invasive procedure. Other biomarker screening tests for ovarian cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and multiple sclerosis are in the company’s pipeline.

    Phenomenome offers contract biomarker screening services for pharmaceutical, nutrition, and agricultural clients. “Our technology detects small molecules in an unbiased manner in any complex biological mixture,” according to Hayden. Additionally, the biomarker platform uncovers the biochemical processes underlying a disease, which are used to design targeted small molecule drugs. “It’s biomarker-driven therapeutic development,” Hayden explains. The first candidates will move into clinical trials within 18 months.

    In the second quarter of 2008, Phenomenome plans to open Phreedom Sante, a personal metabolic health monitoring clinic that will perform biomarker testing for the public. The biomarkers such as oxidative stress and lipid profiles are linked to chronic conditions and can be detected up to 10 years before clinical symptoms occur.

    Clients will be given advice about appropriate medications or life-style changes like diet and exercise to improve their health. The same biomarkers can then be used to monitor whether drugs or lifestyle changes successfully reduce disease risks. “It’s a novel direct-to-consumer approach to motivate people to take preventive action,” Hayden remarks.

    Saponin was formed to commercialize natural chemicals stored in seeds of Saponaria vaccaria. This wild prairie carnation makes large amounts of saponins and other bioproducts. Saponins are gentle, nonionic detergents found in shampoos and products for laundering delicate fabrics. Their natural foaming action makes them key ingredients in beer, soft drinks, and fire extinguishers.

    In the last five years, medical applications of saponins have been discovered. Saponins structurally resemble steroids and interact with cell membranes. “We are studying some of the potential medical uses of saponins, specifically immunostimulatory properties for use in vaccines,” says Paul Arnison, Ph.D., CSO and cofounder. The strong immune response to saponins provides an opportunity to prepare low-cost adjuvants on a large scale for animal healthcare applications. A longer-term goal is to develop human vaccine adjuvants.

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