For the past few months, we have highlighted a number of world-changing advancements in drug discovery and protein science made by Canadian scientists in our Canada 150 blog series. Canadian research institutions and their scientists have long been lauded as some of the world’s best, and have have contributed to key accomplishments in the Life Sciences. We made our very best attempt to highlight the numerous achievements in this Canada 150 Blog series, and recognize that many deserving discoveries were not addressed. We encourage you to explore other resources describing Canada’s rich history of scientific discovery, such as this Global News article on 8 Canadian medical discoveries to be proud of, the CIHR’s timeline of milestones in medical research, and a timeline highlighting a century of innovation from Innovative Medicines Canada. As Canada’s 150th year comes to a close, we look towards the future with a prospective examination at the ongoing developments that will propel Canada’s position for the next 150 years.
Innovation in science, technology, and medicine requires ample support from rigorous research. As Cyclica’s President and CEO, Naheed Kurji, has openly stated at events like Elevate Toronto, “Canada has long been a global leader in scientific research and invention, and is quickly becoming the epicenter for innovation and commercialization in drug discovery, biotechnology, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and other related fields through its continued tradition of academic excellence.” Canadian universities and research facilities frequently rank amongst other top global institutions when it comes to producing high-quality research. Despite making up less than 5% of the global population, Canada is ranked 7th in the world when it comes to both production of high-quality research and number of citations. Canada also possesses the 5th highest national H-index, a metric that is used to measure research productivity and quality. These numbers are unsurprising when considering that Canada hosts many world-renowned researchers, particularly in the fields of medicine, biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology, including the likes of Stephen Scherer, Philipp Lange, Tak Mak, Janet Rossant, Andras Nagy, Gordon Keller, Frank Sicheri, Susan P. C. Cole, Stefan Taubert, Craig Jenne, Julie Forman-Kay, Christine Bear amongst many other, as well as researchers from the computer science and AI field, including the likes of Geoffrey Hinton, Brendan Frey, Anna Goldenberg, Sanja Fidler, Raquel Urtasun, Jean Francois Gagné and many more talented individuals. Canada continues to be an attractive destination for talented researchers across the world, and in 2017, Canada invested $117.6 million to create the Canada 150 Research Chairs program to celebrate excellence in research in Canada.
In addition to being a global leader in research and invention, Canada is also training the next generation of scientists from all disciplines and backgrounds. Canada’s commitment to equity in education is apparent as it ranks amongst the top four nations with not only the highest performances on the Programme for International Student Assessment, but also the greatest socio-economic parity amongst all nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. This commitment to education continues into post-secondary education, as Canada spends 2.6% of its GDP on tertiary education, the second highest in the world. Consequently, 61% of 25-34 year-olds in Canada have attained a tertiary education as of 2016, a figure second only to South Korea, with nearly a third of those achieving a Master’s level degree or higher.
Canada’s culture of academic excellence has allowed the flourishing of talented students like Jenny Lou, a Vanier Scholar in the Department of Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto, where she researches the application of nanoparticles to track and boost specific anti-tumour immune cells with stimulants. “The Canadian education system provided me with an introduction to science and research during some of my formative years in high school, and subsequent opportunities to conduct undergraduate research has opened my eyes to a career in research”, claims Jenny. She cites the the Sanofi-Aventis Biotechnology Challenge and her undergraduate research experience at the University of Alberta as two key events that convinced her to pursue research, both of which were enabled through the financial support of Canadian public and private organizations. “None of this would be possible, if I were not in an environment that fosters STEM education and funds research opportunities for trainees”, she reflects. She hopes to one day lead innovative research herself as a well-trained scientist.
Naheed further emphasized that, “Canada’s excellence in research and invention has continued to support the growth of many biotechnology firms, and has shaped a culture of providing aspiring scientists the tools to be great entrepreneurs through innovation and commercialization.” With the support of programs like Networks of Centres of Excellence, bustling hubs like MaRS Innovation, JLABS @ Toronto, the Vector Institute, Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), Centre for Drug Research and Development, and the Quebec Consortium for Drug Discovery (CQDM) have emerged across the nation to bridge investors with entrepreneurs to facilitate development and translation of new life science-based technologies and therapeutics. Canada is beginning to attract large private investments in biotechnology which have supported the successful development of firms like Clementia Pharmaceuticals, which completed a $120M IPO on NASDAQ in August for their lead compound to treat rare bone and connective tissue disorders. Fusion Pharmaceuticals, a spinout from the Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization, is another prime example of how the Canadian research ecosystem is pushing the boundaries of pharmaceutical science, and how the investment community is taking note. Fusion successfully completed Series A funding in 2017, and is ushering in a new era of innovative radiopharmaceuticals for cancer therapy.
In addition to advancements in biopharmaceuticals, Canada is also a leader in applying emerging technologies to tackle medical and scientific challenges. Toronto-based Synaptive Medical, which is supported by leading Canadian life sciences venture capital firm, Epic Capital, is developing next-generation robotic platforms to assist neurosurgeons with advanced imaging and automated surgical positioning systems. Their platform continues to be recognized by hospitals in North America for improving surgical accuracy and patient safety. Across the street from the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, where James Till and Ernest McCulloch conducted their pioneering work on multipotent stem cells, is BlueRock Therapeutics, a collaborative venture that raised $225M from Versant Ventures and Bayer for the application of stem cell-based therapy in degenerative diseases. Accelerating life science discovery are major advancements in computing and related technologies like AI. In my discussions with Naheed, he is thrilled about the nexus of life science and AI, saying “We see the discovery potential when leveraging AI technology in biological sciences, take for example Deep Genomics, an AI biotech revolutionizing the development of life-saving genetic medicines at JLabs @ Toronto who raised $16M round led by Khosla Ventures. We at Cyclica have been supported by a number private investors and funds like GreenSky Capital and Epic Capital raising over $7.0M to develop the first and only cloud-based an AI-augmented small molecule drug discovery platform that enables scientists to better design and understand small molecules through polypharmacology.” Success hasn’t been limited to Ontario, in Vancouver, Zymeworks has been using high-performance computing to optimize antibodies and other protein-based therapeutics for the treatment of cancers and autoimmune disorders. Zymeworks had a valuation of $324M at their IPO last year in June and has been listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Canada is also home to many innovative platforms that aim to help researchers in their own work. Meta is one such firm that garnered significant media attention, as it was acquired by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in 2017. Meta aims to apply machine learning on the vast library of scientific literature to provide valuable insights for scientists and innovators. BenchSci, an alumnus from the Creative Destruction Lab, is another company that uses artificial intelligence to empower scientists by facilitating collaborative decision-making on protocols and reagents used in antibody-focused research that is supported by prominent Toronto-based VC Real Ventures. And lastly, Atomwise, another alumnus from the CDL that now resides in San Francisco, uses AI to discover new drugs as well as agricultural compounds through its patented technology AtomNet, and recently raised $45M to advance their drug discovery programs.
From building the disruptive firms of today, to training the researchers of tomorrow, Canada is well-positioned to develop as a global hub for science and technology. This future is only possible, however, should Canadians continue to support science and innovation as a top priority. A recent comprehensive report found that there is still much to accomplish in order to to fully capitalize on Canada’s potential and maintain its competitiveness in research and innovation globally. Increased financial support for research programs and trainees would not only help Canada retain talented scientists, but also support aspiring innovators like Jenny to succeed here in Canada. Further investments into our innovation infrastructure are are needed to continue to attract global interest from the likes of Alphabet and Amazon. As Canada shifts increasingly towards an economy founded on innovation, Canada must remain steadfast in maintaining its values of fairness, diversity, and sustainability to ensure a better outcome for all Canadians.
Since its humble inception, Cyclica has strived to embody Canadian excellence in science and innovation. In the last year alone, Cyclica launched its cloud-based platform, Ligand Express, for polypharmacological screening and announced many new academic and industrial partnerships to tackle disorders such as cancer, degenerative eye diseases, autoimmune skin diseases, and Parkinson’s disease. Naheed reflected on Cyclica’s success to date, “our vision is not to be one tool for one scientist, but to be an integral utility platform in the pharma R&D value chain. Our approach and technologies has been molded by a dedicated and highly-talented team of scientists, developers, and leaders, many of whom were beneficiaries of Canada’s excellent educational system. As we grew, we have diversified our team with talented individuals with different backgrounds from around the world.” Naheed also reflects on how the ecosystem has benefited Cyclica directly, “the innovative environment in Toronto, our deep relationship with MaRS, and our residence in JLABS starting last September have strengthened Cyclica’s connection to not only other local innovative companies, but also to pharmaceutical firms worldwide. This has been huge in growing our business.” From the author’s perspective, Cyclica looks well-prepared to tackle the many exciting opportunities and challenges to come and I look forward to hearing their latest successes in the near future.