Funding boost helps keep Alberta at the forefront of glycomics, metabolomics

The federal funding supports centres that advance research in these two areas that have the potential to impact health on a wide scale.

Liang Li

Liang Li is a node leader and co-director for The Metabolomics Innovation Centre, which along with GlycoNet Integrated Services, received funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation’s Major Science Initiatives Fund. (Photo: John Ulan)

Two fundamental fields of study poised to revolutionize health treatments just got a major funding boost.

The fields of both glycomics and metabolomics are all about better understanding the human body and all the cells and processes within it. These two fields of study provide an avenue to address a wide variety of health needs and are leading to increased precision in terms of diagnosing, detecting and predicting many diseases and disorders. 

A recent infusion of federal funding bolsters the U of A’s strength in these two fields by supporting two key centres that in turn provide necessary infrastructure and expertise to researchers working in these areas. The Canadian Foundation for Innovation’s Major Science Initiatives Fund has provided $8,879,183 to The Metabolomics Innovation Centre (TMIC) and $10,684,968 to GlycoNet Integrated Services (GIS), helping these centres to continue their pioneering research. 

“There’s this coming revolution in glycomics, and Canada and the U of A are going to be front and centre in that,” says Warren Wakarchuk, scientific director of GlycoNet. 

“This kind of funding will allow us to remain at the forefront of metabolomics research and allow us to provide a cutting-edge service,” adds Liang Li, node leader and co-director at TMIC.

The Metabolomics Innovation Centre, which formed in 2011 with the support of Genome Canada, has nodes across Canada led by various researchers, with the U of A housing three nodes led by Li, David Wishart and James Harynuk. By studying the metabolome — the complete collection of metabolites found in cells, tissues, and organisms — researchers can glean answers about drug metabolism, disease biomarkers and more.

TMIC’s goal is to develop novel technologies, analytical services, data resources and training that will all work together to translate metabolomics from the laboratory to real-world applications.

“Ultimately, we want to help create and grow metabolomics-related industry and enterprise in Canada. The Metabolomics Innovation Centre will generate real social and economic benefits for Canadians,” says Li. 

Scientists affiliated with TMIC have authored 50 per cent of the most-cited papers in metabolomics, highlighting the centre’s world-leading expertise in the field. TMIC’s history of success includes a variety of spin-off companies, such as DrugBank, as well as innovations that help with early colon polyp detection and rapid UTI screening. 

Researchers continue to explore important health questions. For example, node leader and co-director David Wishart led a study that helped figure out how COVID-19 impacts different metabolites, with the goal of building new tests and potential secondary therapeutics. 

Li and Matthew Hicks, a neonatologist in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, were co-leads on another CFI grant that provided metabolomics researchers with lab equipment that was able to analyze 10 times more samples than previously, offering a clearer picture of how exposure to environmental toxins affects people’s health. 

“This work has a tangible benefit. It can be transformational,” says Li.

Warren Wakarchuk
“Glycomics has so much promise for all kinds of human therapies,” says Warren Wakarchuk, scientific director of GlycoNet. “It’s the next wave or next revolution in the biotechnology area.” (Photo: John Ulan) 

Glycomics likewise has a huge potential to transform health-care, with glycans serving as a key to new vaccines, diagnostics and drugs.

“Glycomics has so much promise for all kinds of human therapies,” says Wakarchuk. “It’s the next wave or next revolution in the biotechnology area.” 

GlycoNet, a pan-Canadian initiative founded in 2015 through the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program, was created to bring together researchers, industry and academic partners in order to study glycomics. GlycoNet Integrated Services, the branch of GlycoNet that was the recipient of the recent funding, is a critical resource for this network, providing tools, specialized expertise, and access to unique infrastructure to the involved researchers and partners. 

Currently, there are about 160 partner organizations and 180 researchers involved in GlycoNet. “The U of A has the highest concentration of glyco-scientists in the country, and that number continues to grow,” says Wakarchuk.

Canada currently holds a leadership position in the glycomics sphere, and GlycoNet hopes to continue building that international reputation of excellence. The centre also delivers training in both glycomics research and entrepreneurship, makes key connections between research and industry, and translates exciting research advances into tangible benefits for Canadians. 

While the funding infusion will allow for the continued growth of GIS, GlycoNet researchers have already made vast strides in tackling pressing health issues.

GlycoNet start-up ABOzymes Biomedical, for example, is looking at a particular sugar, carried on nearly all the cells of your body, that determines blood type, and is refining a way to convert blood from type A or B to the universal type O blood. A collaboration with pediatric heart surgeon Lori West could pave the way for removing the mismatch barrier in organ donation, making organs much more available as the specific blood type of the donor becomes a non-issue. 

In a recent study, Matthew Macauley, also a GlycoNet researcher, shed light on how our immune systems gradually tailor antibodies to battle infectious diseases. The fundamental scientific knowledge that came from the long-running project can be applied to a wide range of health issues including many autoimmune diseases.

The centre-based funding ensures that researchers in these key areas have the infrastructure and expertise needed for continued success as they develop further health innovations.

“These significant investments in world-class research infrastructure reflect the importance we place on issues that affect our environment, the health, prosperity and quality of life of all Canadians,” says Roseann O’Reilly Runte, President and CEO of Canada Foundation for Innovation.