Tag Archives: Sanofi

Café Scientifique Vancouver (Canada) talk on October 30th, 2018: Solving some of Canada’s grandest challenges with synthetic biology

From an October 16, 2018 Café Scientifique Vancouver announcement (received via email),

Our next café will happen on TUESDAY, OCTOBER 30TH at 7:30PM in the
back room at YAGGER’S DOWNTOWN (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the
evening will be DR. VIKRAMADITYA G. YADAV. His topic will be:


A warming climate, unrepressed mining and logging, contamination of our
water resources, the uncertain price and tight supply of crude oil and
the growing threat of epidemics are having a profound, negative impact
on the well-being of Canadians. There is an urgent need to develop and
implement sustainable manufacturing technologies that can not only meet
our material and energy needs, but also sustain our quality of life.
Romantic and unbelievable as it sounds, Nature posses all the answer to
our challenges, and the coming decades in science and engineering will
be typified by our attempts to mimic or recruit biology to address our
needs. This talk will present a vivid snapshot of current and emerging
research towards this goal and highlight some cutting-edge technologies
under development at the University of British Columbia [UBC].

When he joined the University of Waterloo as an undergraduate student in
chemical engineering, Dr. Vikramaditya G. Yadav coveted a career in
Alberta’s burgeoning petrochemical sector. He even interned at Imperial
Oil during his first summer break from university. Then, one fine
evening during second year, he stumbled upon a copy of Juan Enríquez’s
As the Future Catches You in the library and became instantly captivated
with biological engineering. His journey over the past few years has
taken him to Sanofi Pasteur [vaccines division of the multinational
company Sanofi], the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT],
Harvard University, and finally, the University of British Columbia,
where he now leads a wonderful group of researchers working on
wide-ranging topics at the interface of biology, chemistry, engineering,
medicine and economics.

We hope to see you there!

Oftentimes, the speaker is asked to write up a description of their talk and assuming that’s the case and based on how it’s written, I’d say the odds are good that this will be a lively, engaging talk.

For more proof, you can check out Dr. Yadav’s description of his research interests on his UBC profile page. BTW, his research group is called The Biofoundry (at UBC).

Aphios gets a patent to deliver cannabis (marijuana) at the nanoscale

A Nov. 4, 2013 news item on Nanowerk features Aphios Corporation and its successful application for a cannibis-themed patent,

Aphios Corporation today announced that it received notification of allowance for a United States Patent entitled “Nanoencapsulated Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol” for the oral delivery of cannabinoids such as Δ9-THC in biodegradable polymer nanoparticles.”

According to Dr. Trevor P. Castor, co-inventor of the technology, “The patented technology will be utilized in the manufacturing of APH-0812 for pain and cachexia in AIDS and cancer patients, and APH-1305 for Multiple Sclerosis and other CNS disorders. The nanotech formulation of Δ9-THC will also have applicability in several other chronic diseases such as obesity, smoking cessation and schizophrenia.”

There is, currently, a commercially available product (Marinol®) but there are some disadvantages that the Aphios technology bypasses (from the Nov. 4, 2013 news item on FreshNews.com),

For the novel patented formulation, pharmaceutical grade Δ9-THC and other cannabinoids from Cannabis sativa with a >99% purity are first manufactured following cGMP utilizing Aphios’ patented SFS-CXP manufacturing technology platform. Our scientists and engineers then utilize Aphios’ patented SFS-PNS polymer nanospheres technology platform to encapsulate Δ9-THC in a biodegradable polymer. Nanoencapsulation protects Δ9-THC transport to the stomach, enhances its passage across the stomach lining of the gut and protects it from first pass metabolism in the liver. Nanoencapsulation slows the release of Δ9-THC, controlling the amount of drug in the bloodstream and reducing the frequency of drug administration during the day. Alternatively, the nanoformulation will be utilized to deliver Δ9-THC and other cannabinoids from a subcutaneously implanted depot.

You can find out more about Aphios including this from the Company Overview webpage,

We are leading the way in developing green, enabling biotechnology and nanotechnology drug delivery platforms and enhanced therapeutic products for health maintenance, disease prevention and the treatment of certain cancers, infectious diseases and Central Nervous System (CNS) disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

Aphios®, which means “virus-free” in Greek, was founded in 1993 as a Delaware C corporation. The company was founded by Dr. Trevor P. Castor, President and CEO, to develop enabling technology platforms around the delivery and viral safety of biologics such as human plasma and recombinant therapeutics, hence its “virus-free” name. At its founding, the Company elected to spend about 10% of its research activities on investigating natural therapeutics. This interest has evolved to the realization that in order to solve the problems of cancer and aging, we have to look to nature, marine organisms and terrestrial plants that have learned how to control cell growth and cancerous mutation, often living for hundreds to thousands of years.

There’s no question humans and other animals have benefited greatly from therapeutics derived from nature but there’s at least one case, artemisinin, where we might be better off if the therapy is delivered from its  more or less natural state, a tea brewed from the plant, rather than as a refined drug, artemisinin combination therapy (or ACT) purchased from Sanofi (aka, Sanofi-Aventis), a French, multi-national pharmaceutical company, as per the discussion in my April 12, 2013 posting.

Science, politics, and logic

I started the week with a posting where I highlighted a presentation about algae, biofuels, policy making, and politics (my Apr. 8, 2013 posting: Algae factories could produce nanocellulose for biofuels and more) and I’m going to end this week with another politics/policy posting, this time focusing on artemisinin and malaria.

Malaria is a serious, serious problem in many parts of the world as Brendan Borrell notes in his Apr. 4, 2013 article, The WHO vs. the Tea Doctor, about an herbal tea that contains artemisinin, for Slate.com,

Of all the illnesses that have afflicted humanity over millennia, few have left their mark quite like malaria, which infects 200 million people each year and kills at least 655,000, most of whom are children. [emphasis mine] Falciparum malaria—the most common type in sub-Saharan Africa—starts as a debilitating fever, which can progress in severe cases to convulsions, brain damage, and death. In this part of the world, it’s almost impossible to stay completely free of the parasites for long. Adults often display a low level of immunity, which makes each subsequent infection painful and unpleasant but usually not fatal.

As I’m about to contrast the information in Borrell’s article with the information in an Apr. 11, 2013 news release from the University of California Berkeley on EurekAlert, about the development of a synthetic artemisinin, I’m going to highlight their ‘agreement’ as the seriousness of the malaria problem,

… a lifesaver for the hundreds of millions of people in developing countries who each year contract malaria and more than 650,000, most of them children, who die of the disease. [emphasis mine]

Borrell sets the discussion for his take on the artemisinin situation with a little history (Note: Links have been removed),

The story of artemisinin demonstrates that even the best malaria drugs are worthless if they are not getting to the people who need them. In the late 1990s, African malaria parasites had become resistant to standard treatments such as chloroquine, and malaria deaths in Uganda doubled in a decade. By the early 2000s, there was a proven alternative: artemisinin combination therapies [ACTs]. Nevertheless, the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria repeatedly rejected countries’ requests for money for ACTs, funding failing treatments over ACTs at a rate of 10-to-1. In 2004, a group of fed-up scientists writing in the Lancet called these decisions “medical malpractice.” Today, although ACTs are heavily subsidized by the international aid community, local clinics frequently run out of stock, and Africans often end up with substandard, ineffective, and sometimes counterfeit medications.

Borrell goes on to recount the story of a  Chinese plant, sweet wormwood ((Artemisia annua), which is the source for both a class of anti-malarial drugs and a tea (Note: A link has been removed),

It [sweet wormwood] can also be grown in wetter parts of Africa, and a year’s supply costs no more than a few dollars. Although the tea itself has traditionally been used in treatment, not prevention, in China, a randomized controlled trial on this farm showed that workers who drank it regularly reduced their risk of suffering from multiple episodes of malaria by one-third. For a group of people who were once waylaid by this mosquito-borne disease four or more times per year, the tea is a godsend.

According to the article, WHO (World Health Organization) and most malaria researchers are opposed to the tea’s use. Reasons given include the claim that herbal concoctions are more dangerous and less effective than pharmaceuticals and that use of the tea could lead to the malaria parasite developing resistance to the drugs.

There are two issues I have with the first claim about herbal concoctions. Having perused the Compendium of Pharmaceuticals (CPS), I can tell you the last I looked it was huge and listed thousands and thousands of drugs and their side effects (did you know that death is considered a side effect?). Fabrication in a laboratory does not equal safety any more that chopping something off a plant and brewing it as a tea equals safety. Personally, I don’t understand why they aren’t testing the tea, which is derived from sweet wormwood and successfully passed one randomized clinical trial, to see if the result can be repeated and also to test it against the drugs in human clinical trials.

As for the second claim that use of the tea could lead to the malaria parasite developing resistance to the drugs, isn’t that what happened to anti-malarial drugs in the late 1990s? Using chloroquine led to resistance against chloroquine. Following this claim to its logical end, we should never use any drug or herbal concoction as either might lead to resistance.

As for the tea’s successful clinical trial, the researcher experienced difficulty getting his study published (from the article; Note: A link has been removed),

While the workers are effusive about the tea, malaria experts have taken less kindly to it. When Ogwang [Patrick Ogwang of the Ugandan Ministry of Health] tried to publish the results in Malaria Journal, a reviewer largely praised the quality of the science but nixed publication out of concern that use of the tea could render ACTs ineffective. It’s a remarkably patronizing recommendation: that a scientific journal should keep the latest evidence out of the hands of Africans, lest they begin treating themselves. Marcel Hommel, editor in chief of the journal, defends the decision, saying, “It is the responsibility of an editor to avoid publishing papers that promote interventions which could potentially put patients at risk.” Ogwang eventually published his results in a less prestigious journal.

Borrell expresses reservations about herbal medicines/concoctions and he supports having the drugs for special cases but he also notes a study which suggests that a tea made from the plant might be more effective for adults and for less severe cases. From the article (Note: Links have been removed),

In the case of malaria, Anamed and others also argue that it makes sense to preserve stocks of conventional drugs for children and severe cases. One reason ACTs have been so expensive is the cost of isolating artemisinin, but there have long been indications that using a cruder, cheaper whole-plant extract could potentially be more effective and cheaper. In a study conducted in rats last year, University of Massachusetts researchers compared a single dose of pure artemisinin to dried whole leaves, and found that the whole plant was better at killing malaria parasites. And while millions have been spent bioengineering bacteria to crank out pure artemisinin on a budget, you still have to get it to the people who need it.

The resistance that the experts fear has been proved true, according to Borrell’s article, in areas where artemisinin drugs have been distributed and used with abandon.

Coincidentally or not, the University of California Berekeley announced a the development of semi-synthetic artemisinin in the Apr. 11, 2013 news release mentioned earlier,

Twelve years after a breakthrough discovery in his University of California, Berkeley, laboratory, professor of chemical engineering Jay Keasling is seeing his dream come true.

On April 11 [2013], the pharmaceutical company Sanofi will launch the large-scale production of a partially synthetic version of artemisinin, a chemical critical to making today’s front-line antimalaria drug, based on Keasling’s discovery.

The drug is the first triumph of the nascent field of synthetic biology and will be, Keasling hopes, a lifesaver ….

Keasling and colleagues at Amyris, a company he cofounded in 2003 to bring the lab-bench discovery to the marketplace, will publish in the April 25 issue of Nature the sequence of genes they introduced into yeast that allowed Sanofi to make the chemical precursor of artemisinin. The paper will be available online April 10.

“It is incredible,” said Keasling, who also serves as associate director for biosciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and as CEO of the Joint Bioenergy Institute in Emeryville, Calif. “The time scale hasn’t been that long, it just seems like a long time. There were many places along the way where it could have failed.”

The yeast strain developed by Amyris based on Keasling’s initial research and now used by Sanofi produces a chemical precursor of artemisinin, a compound that until now has been extracted from the sweet wormwood plant, Artemsia annua. Artemisinin from either sweet wormwood or the engineered yeast is then turned into the active antimalarial drug , and typically mixed with another antimalarial drug in what is called arteminsinin combination therapy, or ACT.

Global demand for artemisinin has increased since 2005, when the World Health Organization identified ACTs as the most effective malaria treatment available. Sanofi said that it is committed to producing semisynthetic artemisinin using a no-profit, no-loss production model, which will help to maintain a low price for developing countries. Though the price of ACTs will vary from product to product, the new source for its key ingredient, in addition to the plant-derived supply, should lead to a stable cost and steady supply, Keasling said.

Unfortunately, no details about Sanofi’s no-profit, no-loss production model are offered. Perhaps a reader could ease my ignorance? I am interpreting this model to mean that while Sanofi won’t make money from the project, it does expect to recoup its costs (no-loss). (I most recently mentioned Sanofi, a French multinational, in an Apr. 9, 2013 posting about the winners of its 2013 competition for Canadian students.)

The backers of the research do provide some reasoning for this synthetic biology artemisinin project (from the news release),

“The production of semisynthetic artemisinin will help secure part of the world’s supply and maintain the cost of this raw material at acceptable levels for public health authorities around the world and ultimately benefit patients,” said Dr. Robert Sebbag, vice-president of Access to Medicines at Sanofi. “This is a pivotal milestone in the fight against malaria.” [emphasis mine]

I wonder what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ level of costs to public health authorities and, for that matter, to Sanofi. After all, I was under the impression after reading Borrell’s article that all one needed to do was to cultivate the plant and harvest it for materials to make tea.  There was no mention of difficulties cultivating the plant in countries outside of China where it originated nor was there any mention that it was expensive to cultivate.

There are some fairly big names, in addition to Sanofi, involved in this synthetic biology project,

The success is due in large part to two grants totaling $53.3 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to OneWorld Health, the drug development program for PATH, an international nonprofit organization aiming to transform global health through innovation. [emphasis mine] OneWorld Health shepherded the drug’s development out of Keasling’s UC Berkeley lab to Amyris for scale-up and then to pharmaceutical firm Sanofi, based in France, for production.

I am pointing out some interesting relationships with the intention of providing a view of a complex situation with many well-intentioned players, where lines of opposition have been drawn and the people most at risk seemingly forgotten. If the tea hasn’t caused resistance in over 1,500 years of use in China while the drugs have already done so on the Thai-Cambodian border as per Borrell’s article, why isn’t it being accepted and used? While some might point at corporate profit requirements (and I’m not discounting that motive regardless of what Sanofi’s company executives say), there are also issues of institutionalized opposition to any developments made outside of the medical establishment, and the fetishization of the laboratory environment where drugs are made pure in a pure environment while herbs come from the ‘dirty’ earth.

Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada awards national prizes to winners

I last wrote about Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada and its awards in my Feb. 20, 2013 posting on the occasion of the organization’s 20th anniversary in Canada. Today, Apr. 9, 2013, there’s an annoucement that the 2013 Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada prizes were awarded today in Ottawa,

Cutting edge research into an experimental therapy that deploys nano-particles of gold to kill cancer cells earned an Alberta high school student, 16, top national honours today in the 2013 “Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada” (SBCC).

India-born Arjun Nair, 16, a Grade 11 student at Webber Academy, Calgary, was awarded the top prize of $5,000 by a panel of eminent Canadian scientists assembled at the Ottawa headquarters of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).

His research project, mentored at the University of Calgary, advances an experimental cancer “photothermal therapy” which involves injecting a patient with gold nanoparticles.  The particles accumulate in tumours, forming so-called “nano-bullets” that can be heated to kill cancer cells.

Arjun showed how an antibiotic may overcome defences cancer deploys against the therapy and make the promising treatment more effective.  Arjun’s research, which a panel of expert judges led by Dr. Luis Barreto called “world class Masters or PhD-level quality,” also won a special $1,000 prize awarded to the project with the greatest commercial potential.

There were other winners too,

Eleven brilliant students from nine Canadian regions, all just 16 to 18 years old, took part in the national finals.  They had placed 1st at earlier regional SBCC competitions, conducted between March 21 and April 4.

Celebrating 20 years of inspiring young scientists in Canada, this year’s SBCC involved a total of 208 high school and CEGEP students collaborating on 123 projects, all mentored in professional labs over several months and submitted via the regional competitions.  Since its beginning in Toronto in 1994, some 4,500 young Canadians have competed in the SBCC, an event that has inspired sister BioGENEius competitions in the USA and Australia.

2nd place, $4,000 — British Columbia: Selin Jessa, 17, Grade 12, Dr. Charles Best Secondary School, Coquitlam, won the $4,000 2nd place prize with research into how genetic mutations naturally help some HIV patients escape symptoms.

Arjun and Selin will compete for Canada April 22-23 at the International BioGENEius Challenge, conducted at the annual BIO conference, this year in Chicago.

3rd place, $3,000 — Quebec: Eunice Linh You, 17, Grade 11, Laval Liberty High School, Laval, who investigated how to tailor stem cell treatments for Parkinson’s disease

4th place, $2,000 — Greater Toronto: Lauren Chan, 17, Grade 12, University of Toronto Schools, who described a potential new therapy to reduce the severity of diabetes

5th place, $1,000 — Manitoba: Daniel Huang, 16, Grade 11, St. John’s Ravenscourt School, Winnipeg, who discovered a potential new tactic to fight the world’s deadliest brain cancer

Honorable mention, $500:

Newfoundland, Jared Trask, 18, Kaitlyn Stockley, 17, Grade 12, Holy Spirit High School, Conception Bay West, who, for the second consecutive year, won the Atlantic region competition by proving novel ideas for creating biofuels;

Eastern Ontario, Adamo Young, 16, Grade 11, Lisgar Collegiate Institute, Ottawa, who found that altering its nitrogen supply appears to tame a toxic fungus that ruins billions worth of grain worldwide;

Southwestern Ontario, Melanie Grondin, 17, Shawn Liu, 18, Vincent Massey Secondary School, Windsor, who found a marker in medicine’s quest for the holy grail of leukaemia treatments: limitless supplies of healthy stem cells.

Saskatchewan, Saruul Uuganbayar, 17, Grade 12, Centennial Collegiate, Saskatoon, who invented a molecular therapy for mutated cells with the dream of curing cancer.

Given my interest in nanotechnology, Nair’s project is particularly intriguing,

Aiming to create an effective cancer-killing nano-bullet made of gold

Helping science develop a nano-bullet to defeat cancer is the futuristic vision of Arjun Nair, a 16-year-old Calgary high school student.

These “bullets” are formed by gold nanoparticles that, when injected into a patient, accumulate in cancerous tumours. Using light, the gold nanoparticles rapidly heat up in the tumours, killing only the cancer cells. Known as photothermal therapy (PTT), the idea has shown promise but isn’t that effective because cancer cells fight back, producing heat-shock proteins to protect themselves.

Arjun looked into the use of an antibiotic (17-AAG) to defeat cancer’s defence.

Nanoparticles are less than millionth of the size of grain of sand, making them pretty difficult to make and work with, says Arjun. He spent the last two years working on his idea, including the past year between Simon Trudel’s and David Cramb’s Nanoscience Labs at the University of Calgary [see my interview with Dr. Cramb in my Mar. 8, 2010 posting and he is mentioned here in other postings should you care to search his name].

It’s rare for a high-tech lab to allow a high school student to work with its expensive equipment but Dr. Cramb, Dr. Simon Trudel and Lab Manager, Amy Tekrony provided access and all important mentorship, he says.

“Proof-of-concepts were developed and tested in order to demonstrate the viability of PTT,” says Arjun.  “Moreover, after analyzing the literature a mathematical model was developed to evaluate a theoretical synergetic treatment.”

“I’ve entered science competitions since Grade 5. I really enjoy taking my ideas and making them happen in real life,” says Arjun, who also enjoys debating, sports and volunteer work.

He dreams of doing science in university, perhaps pursuing a career in medical research. One of the best parts of the competition was the great friendships Arjun has made. “I’m part of community of students who love sharing ideas and talking science.”

They make quite a big deal of these awards,

Following the presentation ceremony at the NRC, the students were received by Governor-General David Johnston at Rideau Hall, a distinguished educator prior to his vice-regal appointment.

Dr. Kellie Leitch, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources Skills Development, keynote speaker at the awards ceremony, said: “It is so important that we have all of our skills and talent at work in Canada and the SBCC offers students a fantastic opportunity to experience science and technology in new ways, hopefully encouraging them toward exciting careers. I want to congratulate the winners, and all of the participants, of this year’s competition and I thank the organizers for all of the work that they have done in supporting young people in science.”

Sanofi Canada President and CEO Jon Fairest, who presented the top national prize, said: “The Sanofi Group is very proud to be founding sponsors of the Sanofi BioGENEIus Challenge Canada (SBCC) and participate in this milestone competition. With its 20-year heritage, the SBCC shows how critical partnerships are to advance science and talent in Canada. From the mentoring provided by dedicated academics, to the support of government and the private sector, the SBCC truly stands out as a model for collaboration. The SBCC and the incredible students who participate inspire us to all think differently about our future and ensure we have a strong foundation in place to create a sustainable healthcare system in Canada.”

The SBCC gives young scientists access to professional labs and academic mentors, encouraging the pursuit of future studies and careers in the country’s fast-growing biotechnology sector.

Each of the students worked for months conducting research and collaborating with university mentors.

It’s not just public officials and Sanofi officials who are paying attention,

The nine final national projects were presented at NRC headquarters Monday April 8 to a panel of eminent Canadian scientists:

  • Dr. Luis Barreto, MD, Chief Judge, Bioscience Education Canada
  • Dr. Roman Szumski, Vice President Research, National Research Council Canada
  • Dr. Paul Lasko, Scientific Director, Institute of Genetics, Canadian Institutes of Health Research
  • Dr. Robert Tsushima, Associate Dean of Research, Faculty of Science, York University
  • Dr. Pierre Meulien, President, Genome Canada
  • Dr. Ron Pearlman, Associate Scientific Director, Gairdner Foundation
  • Dr. Jerome Konecsni, President, Innovation Saskatchewan

On the panel as well: Ms. Janelle Tam, 18, of Waterloo, Ontario, SBCC’s national first-place winner in 2012.

National Awards Presenters, National Research Council Canada, April 9, 2013:

Commercialization Award – Dr. Ron Pearlman, Associate Scientific Director, Gairdner Foundation

5th Place – Dr. Alison Symington, VP, Corporate Development, Ontario Genomics Institute / Genome Canada

4th Place — Dr. Spriros Pagiatakis, Associate Dean, Research & Partnerships, York University

3rd Place – Dr. Alain Beaudet, President, Canadian Institutes of Health Research

2nd Place – John McDougall, President, National Research Council of Canada

1st Place – Jon Fairest, President and CEO, Sanofi Canada

The Canadian competition does not stand alone,

The Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC) is a national, biotechnology research competition that encourages high school and CEGEP students to pursue future studies and careers in the exciting field of biotechnology. The initiative is sponsored by Sanofi Pasteur Limited, Sanofi Canada, the National Research Council Canada/ Conseil national de recherches Canada (NRC-CNRC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research/Instituts de recherche en santé du Canada (CIHR-IRSC), York University, Genome Canada and the Government of Canada’s Youth Awareness Program. Canada’s respected Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada has inspired counterpart competitions in the USA and Australia.

For more information, please see Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/11MtXX9), visit sanofibiogeneiuschallenge.ca, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter @BioscienceEdCan

About Sanofi

Sanofi, a global and diversified healthcare leader, discovers, develops and distributes therapeutic solutions focused on patients’ needs. Sanofi has core strengths in the field of healthcare with seven growth platforms: diabetes solutions, human vaccines, innovative drugs, rare diseases, consumer healthcare, emerging markets and animal health. Sanofi is listed in Paris (EURONEXT: SAN) and in New York (NYSE: SNY).

Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of Sanofi, provides more than 1 billion doses of vaccine each year, making it possible to immunize more than 500 million people across the globe. A world leader in the vaccine industry, Sanofi Pasteur offers the broadest range of vaccines protecting against 20 infectious diseases. The company’s heritage, to create vaccines that protect life, dates back more than a century. Sanofi Pasteur is the largest company entirely dedicated to vaccines. Every day, the company invests more than EUR 1 million in research and development. For more information, please visit: www.sanofipasteur.com  or www.sanofipasteur.us

Good luck to Arjun Nair and Selin Jessa when they compete for Canada April 22-23, 2013 at the International BioGENEius Challenge, conducted at the annual BIO conference, in Chicago, Illinois.

Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada celebrates 20 years

The first time (May 11, 2012 posting) I wrote about the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC) competition was when Janelle Tam was recognized as the 2012 national winner for her work with nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) or, as it is sometimes known, cellulose nanocrystals (CNC).  As I noted then,

For anyone who’s curious about Sanofi, it’s a French multinational pharmaceutical company headquartered in Paris, France. I found the Wikipedia essay a little more informative than the Sanofi company website .

Justifiably proud not only of Tam and other 2012 winners, SBCC has sent out a news release enumerating the many triumphs and benefits associated with this competition. From the SBCC Feb.20, 2012 news release,

Unexpected bonus prizes from a high school bioscience competition, mentored by some of Canada’s top research experts, range from six-figure scholarships, valuable networks and commercial patents to peer-reviewed journal citations, global publicity, international conference invitations and more, former teen participants say.

But the reward cited most often by alumni of the “Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada” (SBCC), this year marking its 20th annual competition, is the eye-opening experience of watching their inventive ideas succeed and being encouraged in a professional lab, creating in many a career-shaping passion for science.

“That’s a benefit shared throughout Canada’s economy, which has a growing, $86 billion biotechnology sector, as well as with people worldwide,” says Jeff Graham, Chair of the Board at the Toronto-based Bioscience Education Canada, which manages the SBCC program.

“This program has been ‘infecting’ teens with what one mentor calls the ‘research virus’ and inspiring bioscience careers since 1994. And with hundreds of dedicated partner organizations and mentors nation-wide, we are extremely proud of the success achieved so far as we mark the 20th annual SBCC.

The competition’s latest surprise bonus prize winners are 2012 national competitors Jeanny Yao, 18, and Miranda Wang, 19 of Vancouver, both now in first year at universities in Toronto and Montreal respectively.  The pair will spend Feb. 27 in Long Beach California, invited by organizers of the prestigious TED 2013 conference to tell the world’s science elite how they identified a species of bacteria from the Fraser River’s muddy banks that helps decompose plastic.

Their BC regional SBCC-winning project came to public attention last May in a front page story by the Vancouver Sun (http://bit.ly/XrsaB9)  as the duo were packing to attend SBCC’s national finals in Ottawa.  In the white marble halls of National Research Council of Canada headquarters — the country’s science temple — SBCC’s high-level final judging panel recognised Jeanny and Miranda’s project with a special prize for the “greatest commercial potential.”  (The girls have since approached firms in BC and Ontario on commercialisation ideas.)

They were invited last summer to present their project again at TED@Vancouver (http://bit.ly/X5PRAF), part of a “worldwide talent search,” and were among a handful picked from 293 entrants to reprise their presentation in California.

TED is widely considered the world’s marquee annual science show-and-tell.  And sharing a stage with fellow speakers like U2’s lead singer Bono and PayPal Founder Peter Theil is a five exclamation mark adventure for a couple of university frosh.

“We are extremely excited about this opportunity…!! We couldn’t have done this without your help!!!” Miranda wrote, announcing the news to SBCC’s Vancouver coordinators, LifeSciences BC.  (For more on Jeanny and Miranda at TED: http://bit.ly/WRAs45).

According to the news release some 4500 Canadian teenagers have participated in the competition since 1994. There was a survey of 375 participants, from the news release,

In a survey of 375 past participants by Bioscience Education Canada [BEC], which runs SBCC, 84% said their participation helped determine their field of study or career plan; 74% were pursuing biotechnology-related education or professions, with 12.5% undecided.  Some 55% were current university students, 24% planned to apply after high school, and 21% were post-secondary graduates now in the workforce.  Nearly 60% of respondents were female and 79% had or have bursaries and/or scholarships.

Typical of comments teens relayed with the survey replies, from Brooke Drover of Vernon River, PEI: “It was amazing. So unbelievably stressful, but when my team came second place I could hardly breathe. It was the best feeling in the world knowing that I didn’t just play a sport and win a trophy. I helped the scientific community.”

“Thanks to hundreds of top scientist mentors who have shared their expertise and lab space with the student competitors, we’ve discovered and nurtured incredible talent in high schools and CEGEP classrooms nation-wide,” says Rick Levick, Executive Director of BEC and head of the national competition since its inception,

“The mentors are the unsung heroes of the SBCC program. They often bring out a passion for science and talent for research in kids who didn’t know they had any.”

While I do have some questions about the survey (when was it administered? how was it administered? why 375? etc.), I’m letting them go in appreciation of the participants’ extraordinary accomplishments, from the news release,


Maria Merziotis, $5,000 first place winner in the national 2008 SBCC, found her prize included an academic fast track.  At 21, when those her age at university typically complete an undergrad degree, she’s finishing second year at the University of Ottawa’s medical school, with papers about her flu-related research in preparation for academic publication.

And, just seven years after he first impressed SBCC’s august panel of national judges as a Grade 11 student, Ottawa’s James MacLeod, now 23, is completing a Queen’s University master’s degree in pathology and molecular medicine and applying for early acceptance into the department’s PhD program.

Both credit SBCC with helping them reach medical career doors unusually soon.  Says Maria: “The SBCC competition is the main reason I stand where I am today.  It allowed me to explore the field of research, and through the doors it opened, gained me early acceptance into medical school.”


Says Rui Song of Saskatoon, who in Grade 9, age 14 (a veteran of Saskatchewan’s unique SBCC program for kids in Grades 7 and 8) prevailed over much older teens to win the #1 national award in 2010: “Before the SBCC, I hadn’t even considered being a researcher. I now hope to continue my research journey in university and in my career to continue creating beneficial change in the world.”

Her 2010 work to genetically fingerprint a lentil crop-killing fungus left the expert national judges “astonished.”  She also placed 2nd in last year’s national competition, accepted an offer to spend last summer doing research at Harvard, and today, in Grade 12, is weighing full-time university offers.

Southwestern Ontario

The 2012 top national winner, Janelle Tam of Waterloo, says “SBCC was a huge part of why I started laboratory research at the university in high school, which was instrumental in my decision that I want to be a professor.”

Janelle, completing Grade 12 with studies at Princeton University ahead this fall, detailed the anti-ageing potential of a nano compound found in wood pulp, capturing media attention in at least 36 countries (http://bit.ly/XduBJd), including a social media blog by then-Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty (http://bit.ly/THiq7P).  Last summer in Québec she detailed her findings to staff and researchers of CelluForce’s, Domtar Corp. and FPInnovations — Canadian firms leading the commercial development of nanocrystalline cellulose.


At 17, Sarai Hamodat of St John’s, Newfoundland, entered a prize-winning SBCC project  showing that a traditional Asian oil remedy could ease the suffering of asthma patients, a project inspired by her hope of helping her asthmatic uncle.

Says Sarai, now 23 and a medical resident in pharmacology at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax: “SBCC was my first real introduction to what the world of science has to offer.”

British Columbia

Taneille Johnson entered the competition in 2009 from Fort St. John (pop. 22,000) near the Alberta border in northern BC.  At 16, she lived alone for a summer to work with a University of Calgary mentor in a quest to decipher DNA mutations that may lie behind a rare disorder which causes early onset aging and progressive bone marrow failure.

Taneille, the first student from northern BC to enter the regional event, won it in 2010 and placed third overall at the national finals in Ottawa.  Now 20, she’s a second year BSc student of immunology at McGill University, Montreal, with a goal of medical school studies at the University of British Columbia.

“Not many first year university science students can approach their professor and show them the amount of lab experience I had from the SBCC,” she says, adding “I really cannot overstate how unique the SBCC experience is for high school students.”

Greater Toronto

A year after his first place national win in the 2011 SBCC, Toronto’s Marshall Zhang faced a tough decision: offers from three of the world’s most prestigious Ivy League universities — Yale, Harvard and Princeton.

“The SBCC changed the course of my life,” says Marshall, now a Harvard freshman, who at age 16, and mentored at the Hospital for Sick Kids, used a powerful supercomputer cluster to create a potential new treatment for cystic fibrosis.

On CBC’s “The Nature of Things,” host Dr. David Suzuki cited Marshall and his ideas as an example of the marvels of uninhibited teenage thinking.  CF patients and their parents from across Canada and elsewhere wrote or called out of the blue to congratulate and thank Marshall for his efforts on their behalf.  He was in Grade 11.

“I’d never met a CF patient before then,” he says, adding that the most memorable part of the entire adventure was realizing the real impact his research could have on people.


At 17, Ted Paranjothy of Winnipeg, inspired by a memory from five years old of a friend who died from leukemia, invested 3,000 research hours over two years after school with a mentor at the University of Manitoba, developing innovative ideas for cancer treatment.  Ted’s framework for an anti-cancer agent able to kill human cancer cells without harming healthy ones is an innovation on which he now holds a patent.

His Grade 12 project earned a triple crown of high school biotech science: a first place sweep of the 2007 SBCC regional and national competitions, as well as the Sanofi-sponsored International BioGENEius Challenge — the only Canadian to achieve that distinction so far.  The three first prize cheques totaled $15,000.

Later awarded some $150,000 in scholarships from other sources, Ted continued work with his distinguished mentor, Dr. Marek Los, and had three papers in peer-reviewed journals by the end of first year at UofM.  Now 22, Ted is an independent researcher in cell science at UofM.  He credits SBCC with enabling his university graduate-level research while still in high school, and says it “inspired me to pursue a career in biomedical research.”


In 2011, a trio of Montreal CEGEP students entered the national SBCC with their new sorbet for vegetarians, having discovered a substitute for animal-based gelatine normally found in the frozen dessert.  They won 2nd prize overall, a special award for that year’s project with the greatest commercial potential, and a lot of public attention, which helped create connections with several patent lawyers.

Today, all three are at universities studying science.  “The SBCC definitely pushed to me to explore research opportunities in medicine,” says one team member, Simon Leclerc, adding that feedback from top scientists who evaluated their project and the experience gained was “inestimable… The SBCC is of great help for young, otherwise non-connected students to push their projects forward.”

Brava! Bravo!

Applications for the 2013 competition have been closed since November 2012 but there is a listing of the times and dates for the regional and national 2013 competitions. Although it’s unclear to me whether or not the public is invited to attend, you can get more details here.

Disease-fighting and anti-aging with nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) and Janelle Tam

Originally from Singapore, 16-year old Janelle Tam of Waterloo, Ontario has won first place nationally in the 2012 Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC) competition with her application for nanocrystalline cellulose. From the May 8, 2012 news item on physorg.com,

Janelle Tam, a Grade 12 student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute, was awarded the $5,000 first prize by an impressed panel of eminent Canadian scientists assembled at the Ottawa headquarters of the National Research Council of Canada.

The theme of the competition, “How will you change the world?” inspired hundreds of students to participate in 2012 SBCC events Canada-wide.

Canada’s next big technological and health breakthrough might come from cellulose, the woody material found in trees that enables them to stand. Cellulose is made up of tiny nano-particles called nano-crystalline cellulose (NCC) that are measured in thousandths of the width of a human hair.

Only recently discovered, Waterloo’s Janelle Tam is the first to show that NCC is a powerful antioxidant, and may be superior to Vitamin C or E because it is more stable and its effectiveness won’t diminish as quickly.

“NCC is non-toxic, stable, soluble in water and renewable, since it comes from trees,” says Janelle, a Grade 12 student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute.

“NCC is really a hot field of research in Canada,” says Janelle, who notes that antioxidants have anti-aging and health promotion properties, including wound healing since they neutralize “free radicals” that damage or kill cells.

Janelle chemically ‘paired’ NCC with a well-known nano-particle called a buckminster fullerene. These ‘buckyballs’ (carbon molecules that look like a soccer ball) are already used in cosmetic and anti-aging products she says. The new NCC-buckyball combination acted like a ‘nano-vacuum,’ sucking up free radicals and neutralizing them.

“The results were really exciting,” she says and especially since cellulose is already used as filler and stabilizer in many vitamin products. One day those products may be super-charged free radical neutralizers thanks to NCC, she hopes.

Jeff Hicks’ May 8, 2012 story for TheRecord.com about Tam and her NCC work offers some insight into the young scientist and the scientific process,

Janelle, 16, is admittedly stubborn.

Gets it from her dad Michael, a University of Waterloo chemical engineering professor.

… you’ve got to have gumption to spend three to four hours a day in a University of Waterloo lab from September to March to invent a disease-fighting, anti-aging compound.

A frustrating nano-globe almost kicked her into submission last December.

Three months into her work she realized she had messed up. Her experimental technique was flawed. Her results were as worthless as Leafs playoff tickets.

Janelle wanted to give up. She told her mom Dorothy, a literacy social worker, she was never returning to the lab. Her older sister and former Team Canada science partner Vivienne, could not be leaned on for advice. Vivienne, 19, had left for Princeton.

But Janelle’s dad settled her down.

“He’s one of the most perseverant people I know,” she said. “He tells me that research is about failing and failing and failing. And failures are all steps on the way to success.”

Tam will be in Boston, Massachusetts for June 18, 2012 to compete in Sanofi’s International BioGENEius Challenge, which takes place at the same time as Sanofi’s  BIO Annual International Convention. For anyone who’s curious about Sanofi, it’s a French multinational pharmaceutical company headquartered in Paris, France. I found the Wikipedia essay a little more informative than the Sanofi company website .

(For a mild change of pace) So, Sanofi is a large French company which sponsors this contest. Are Canadian companies sponsoring contests of this type? I ask the question because Canadian companies don’t invest in research and development at the same rate as companies in other countries and, it appears, do less to stimulate  interest and participation in science pursuits amongst youth. Developing an innovative society means having a much more comprehensive approach than publicity campaigns and retooling government funding programmes.

Getting back to Tam’s work, congratulations! This is very exciting stuff especially in light of some of the concerns expressed in Bertrand Marotte’s recent article on NCC for the Globe and Mail newspaper, mentioned in my May 8, 2012 posting.