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David Vocadlo on biotechnology innovation in Canada

David Vocadlo
David Vocadlo, Canada Research Chair in Chemical Biology

Recently named Top 40 Under 40, David Vocadlo, Canada Research Chair in Chemical Biology at Simon Fraser University, leads a 15-member multidisciplinary research team in an expanding field of chemical biology called glycobiology—the study of the role of carbohydrates in biological processes.

He is also co-founder and chief scientific officer of Alectos Therapeutics, a university bio-pharmaceutical spin off company dedicated to the discovery and development of innovative drugs to treat disease, such as Alzheimer’s and various cancers.

The Chairs Secretariat caught up with Vocadlo to gather his reflections on his recent recognition and on the current climate of scientific innovation in Canada.

Chairs: How did it feel to be named Top 40 Under 40?

DV: It was a great honour and also very humbling. There are a lot of good people doing diverse research and I consider myself fortunate to be recognized.

Chairs: You were recognized for your work in glycobiology. Can you explain what that is?

DV: The overall aim of glycobiology is to understand what different carbohydrates do in biology. When you say “carbohydrates” people generally think of glucose and sucrose, which is regular table sugar. Or, those with more sophisticated knowledge may think of pulp and paper, which is cellulose. But there are all kinds of different sugars out there, and they fulfill very important and specific functions. They are found in bacteria, plants, insects, mammals; throughout all kingdoms of life there are different carbohydrates. The aim in the lab is to develop chemical tools to understand how these different carbohydrates are involved in biological processes—with a focus on basic understanding and research but with a view to its potential application in health and disease.

Our most recognized work is in the area of chemical glycobiology, where we have been studying how some sugars inside the cell are taken off and put on by different enzymes. Knowing how enzymes work to carry out this process has allowed us to make chemical probes to block the function of those enzymes within cells. These chemical probes are proving really useful for the research community.

Chairs: How is this useful?

DV: On the basis of some of our research into chemical probes, it became apparent that there was some translational potential, that we might be able to build new medications and treatments from this. We started a bio tech spinoff, Alectos Therapeutics, from Simon Fraser University. Alectos later formed a research collaboration and licensing agreement with Merck to research and develop probes that may help treat Alzheimer’s disease. I think it is a great example of how potential applications and translational research opportunities stem from basic research.

Chairs: How do you find the process of bringing university research out into the commercial world?

DV: In general, within Canada there are just a lot of people motivated and excited about ideas, wanting to see if they actually have potential to generate research useful for the wider public—whether it is for business or for enacting different public policies. In terms of life sciences, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are interested in generating new medical treatments because they are facing the end of the patent lifetime of a whole bunch of important drugs. In the end, they know a lot of innovation happens in universities and in small bio technology companies.

Chairs: Is industry eager to work with university researchers?

Universities are great places for discovering new approaches because you have people focused on new ideas, cutting-edge technologies. Novelty is a key aim. But there is this natural tension between the idea of academics working on pure research versus taking an idea and participating in its translation. To do that, and to do it well, you have to be able to put on a different hat. You have to be able to do the basic research and make sure it’s solid and sound and exciting so that other academic researchers are going to take interest and then follow along from there. And you have to make sure that the students and postdoctoral fellows you are training are able to publish the results and go on to secure good positions.

When you look at the business end of it, translating ideas requires a different kind of thinking—you have to be a little hard-headed and practical-minded about whether or not there is genuine potential there. And then you have to generate a clear proof-of-concept, which can be less exciting than the initial findings, but it is critical so you can prove to people that this is something they might want to invest in order to try to move it into being some kind of viable commercial product. So the gap between discovery and translating those ideas into something of potential economic value can be off-putting for some researchers because the necessary work that follows might be less intellectually stimulating.

Chairs: In your experience of the Canadian research community, do you see any new trends with respect to translating ideas into the marketplace, for example regarding the role of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows?

DV: In our case, the academic and basic research is separate from the translational effort. My graduate students aren’t engaged in the business end of it—they’re doing basic research. And I think that’s important because as educators and mentors, our role is to make sure these people become good scientists first and foremost, and that they are being trained to do basic research. I think when these things start to mix too much, it can be difficult and present challenges for the trainees.

But the trend of translating ideas from the lab to the marketplace has been going on for a long time. If you look at a lot of the biotechnology companies that have been founded in Canada over the years, most of them have their roots in academic research. It’s something that people in Canada have been fairly good about, but I think it’s something we need to recognize, appreciate and cultivate in order to sustain and exploit that trend. I think it’s important when people use the term the “knowledge economy” to realize that the basic research being done in Canada—where it has translational potential—falls into this concept. Basic research is ultimately the wellspring of innovation. I think that needs to be recognized.

Canada needs to push basic research and then capitalize on the quality research being done, in order to generate economic activity through translational innovation. This must happen to keep Canada competitive as an innovator. And the involvement in research with translational potential can be tremendously exciting and motivating for trainees, so it is great, but it needs to be done with care to ensure that it does not impair their professional development.

Chairs: How could the public sector play a greater role in fostering those links between universities/researchers and the private sector?

DV: There are actually a number of good programs in place—there’s the Industrial Research Assistance Program—which is there to help small companies develop research. There are tax incentives for companies to do scientific research and development in Canada. Also, among the federal granting agencies—both the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council— have programs that facilitate the development of technologies that can lead to spin off companies and the commercialization of products and technologies.

That said, in Canada, there is not as big a venture capital pool as there is in the United States, which is one thing that impedes Canadian biotech companies from developing rapidly. The other thing is that there are not a lot of pharmaceutical companies here, which makes it challenging to form domestic partnerships. What would really be great to see in Canada are more biotechnology companies that would be able to grow into stable entities. This would require a certain culture where people are willing to take a small biotechnology company forward to try to grow the company, and not sell it off, so we can see companies develop. Small biotech companies are innovative and maneuverable, and they can easily change directions, pinpoint a focus, and work very creatively on finding solutions. This is the big advantage of biotechnology companies and to retain a culture of agility and innovation as a company grows larger is challenging, but will be increasingly essential as competition increases.

I suppose, in short we need to foster a culture of risk taking in business and academia, and provide appropriate incentives for taking those risks. We need to encourage researchers to go out there and work to move technology forward and build companies. In principle, government could develop programs to enable such an approach.

Chairs: What’s next?

DV: Right now I’m working in Montpellier, France at the Institute for Human Genetics, a leading institute in epigenetics—the study of the changes in gene expression caused by things other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence. I came here to learn more about epigenetics and to begin some exciting new projects.

More information on David Vocadlo’s research is available in his Canada Research Chair profile.