Getting Ahead in Glycomics Research

 At PR Associates, we partner with many unique companies in life sciences, health and biomanufacturing. To help our clients get noticed, we take a multi-pronged approach often involving public relations and strategic communication targeting several audiences, including policy makers to generate greater awareness. Why is this so important? A well-informed audience armed with accurate and compelling information can make better and more informed decisions, often for the benefit of all.

Take a look at GlycoNet, for example — established in 2015, and supported by the federal government’s Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE), GlycoNet connects researchers with industry and academic partners, bringing together the world’s leading experts, innovators and entrepreneurs working to advance the field of glycomics. The solutions they develop help tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues, including antimicrobial resistance, food insecurity and climate change.

Health and biosciences sectors are two of the fastest-growing industries in the Canadian economy, but without longevity and predictability in their funding models, we may be putting the next generation of made-in-Canada scientific breakthroughs at risk. Making sure we build on this area of national strength, as an investment not only in our economy but also in our health, is one reason why the work taking place at GlycoNet is imperative.

Here is their story…

Robert Simpson

Robert Simpson

President & CEO

For the last 20 years, Robert has specialized in strategic communication and public relations, focusing his passion for storytelling to help organizations achieve greater impact. As PR Associates’ leader, Robert plays a role in collaborating with clients and our teams to develop strategies and create experiences that deepen audience engagement.

Why Canada’s competitive advantage in the next great scientific frontier is currently cast in doubt.

What if we told you that many of the secrets of your body — to long life and good health, and more besides that we don’t yet know — can be found in the body’s sugars?

Scientists on the leading edge of health sciences are demonstrating that, to an even greater extent than DNA, the next great leap in human understanding of our own biology lies in the field of glycomics.

While the decoding of the human genome was the seminal discovery that capped off the 20th century — returning $141 for every dollar invested, unlocking new possibilities in human and animal health — it will be research into glycomics that experts believe will drive innovation in the 21st century

Research into the role of these carbohydrates, known as glycans, brings with it wide far-reaching opportunities: precision health and tailored drugs, biofuels and vaccines, diseases in aging, and more.

Far from starting from scratch or playing catch-up to other countries when it comes to glycomics, Canada is already a global leader and international hub for this research.

But whether our country can seize upon this moment, and make good upon years of investment into this industry — unlocking possibilities from economic advantages to global health and humanitarian breakthroughs — remains to be seen.

 

Here at Home

Right now, the glycomics field finds itself at a critical juncture, with its future and full potential currently at stake.

Decades of investment into cutting-edge, made-in-Canada research have allowed us to create a foundation of scientific expertise and institutional experience.

Those years of research have also placed Canada in a position of strength to pursue the next wave of breakthroughs and brought us to the precipice of realizing them.

The history of glycomics research here goes back nearly a century, and for Canada, it constitutes decades of leadership at the forefront of the field.

Nearly 90 years ago, it was Canadian glycomics researchers who found a successful way to optimize the process to produce heparin — a type of glycan — to help reduce blood clotting in patients.

This legacy continued to grow through the mid-1950s with figures like Dr. Raymond Lemieux, whose discoveries include the synthesis of sucrose and who taught new generations of scientists at the universities of Alberta, Ottawa, and Ohio State.

Researchers like Dr. Harry Schachter, who played a leading role at the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto through the 1970s and 80s, deepened our understanding of processes involving glycans, glycoproteins, enzymes, and more.

The impacts and applications for discoveries like theirs made possible later breakthroughs, like the work led by Dr. Harold Jennings to create a successful vaccine against the serious bacterial infection meningitis C.

The technique he discovered, patenting a method to chemically combine complex sugars that neutralize Group C meningitis by covering its surface with a protein, has saved countless lives, and made the disease all but disappear.

That was some 20 years ago: the culmination of decades of world-leading work. It all took place at the National Research Council of Canada.

 

Breakthroughs Beyond Health Sciences

More recently, the glycomics field has been shaken up with the discovery by scientists supported by the Canadian Glycomics Network — or GlycoNet — of a new, more powerful group of enzymes that are capable of turning blood of any kind into the universal donor type O.

This advancement in glycomics research can help radically transform the situation for a global blood supply that, these days, is perpetually in a state of critical shortage.

It’s a major breakthrough, but it’s only the beginning.

Increasingly, the experts leading this research are convinced, and can back it up with evidence: the impact of the next wave of glycomics innovation will touch aspects of everyday life that go way beyond health sciences.

For example, with their hard-hitting whitepaper on the topic — Glycomics: The New Frontier in Bioinnovation — researchers at GlycoNet underline the fact that this research spans many sectors to seize upon a wide range of government priorities.

One that stands out is environmental sustainability: in addition to the benefits of economic growth and recovery that one might expect from major scientific breakthroughs, the coming discoveries in glycomics will distinctly align with Canada’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Glycomics research holds the key to generating new technologies in not just health, but in fields like agriculture, materials, manufacturing, and sustainable food.

Poised as it is on the brink of unlocking these opportunities and more, glycomics research gets right to the heart of what science can do to help humanity today.

And if you’re not convinced yet, ask the patient who was a recent transplant recipient of a pig’s heart — an experimental surgery in which the patient received the vital organ only after it had undergone gene-editing to remove the cellular glycans that could trigger its rejection.

For that person, glycomics research helped save their life, extend it, and greatly improve its quality.

For the field as a whole, it was still just a toe in the water.

What happens next will determine whether Canada takes its glycomics research deeper into these possibilities … or whether our position of strength will be squandered.

 

Hanging in the Balance

Science is not something that happens in a vacuum.

It can only advance when it’s given the resources: of time, place, equipment, expertise, and, beneath it all, money.

Whether Canada continues to lead in the glycomics field, unfortunately, won’t be determined by the near-century of investment that’s already taken place.

Instead, it all hinges on the investment yet to come.

As Karimah Es Sabar — the board chair of the Canadian Glycomics Network and the federal government’s Canada Chair, Health Bioscience Strategy Table — recently pointed out in her op-ed Glycomics is the new fronter in bioinnovation, published in The Hill Times, all these questions about the future of glycomics research are underpinned by partnership.

“If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything,” writes Es Sabar, “it is that when governments are proactive and partner with business and academia, we witness tremendous impacts on the lives of Canadians resulting from investments in cutting-edge science.”

Since it is these lives — of everyday, coast-to-coast Canadians — that stand to reap these benefits, one X-factor that remains to be seen is how the groundswell of citizen support might crystallize.

Making sure we keep building on this area of strategic national strength, investing in both our health and our innovation economy, is one reason why GlycoNet’s story is one with deep impact — and why our team at PR Associates is proud to tell it.

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