“They had access to tremendous infrastructure in biotechnology and researchers, assets that were complementary to what we were doing.”
– Daniel Figeys
Daniel Figeys is in the relationship business. As director of the Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology (OISB), Figeys develops new ways to study how proteins interact at the molecular level and how these interactions play out on the systems level. This focus on relationships has served him well in setting up two joint laboratories with Chinese research institutions. He has succeeded where many other Canadian university researchers have failed.
OISB is an initiative of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine, which is churning out basic and applied research in systems biology and proteomics, the large-scale study of proteins. The human body contains more than two million different proteins and they play important roles in keeping humans humming. Figeys’team develops technologies that measure the levels of proteins in biological samples and map how proteins are modified. He and his colleagues also collaborate with medical scientists to tease out insights on how defective proteins cause disease. Proteomics has the potential to give birth to a generation of drugs that can mend defective proteins or stand in for missing ones.
Luring Figeys to the University in 2004 was a recruiting coup. He had a sterling reputation in the private sector; at the time, he was senior vice-president of systems biology at MDS Proteomics in Toronto. At MDS, he managed staff in Canada, the United States and Denmark, and all his projects had an international dimension.
With his background, Figeys was eager to strike global alliances to give the OISB a bigger footprint. In 2006, while in China to lecture at Fudan University, he took the opportunity to meet with fellow scientists at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics. He was impressed with what he saw. “They had access to tremendous infrastructure in biotechnology and researchers, assets that were complementary to what we were doing,” says Figeys. “We thought if we could bring the two together, we could have a win-win situation.”
Two years later, a joint proteomics laboratory was born, based on an informal yet effective structure. Figeys and his counterpart at Dalian, Hanfa Zou, set the research agenda: one recent project relating to Alzheimer’s disease, in collaboration with Steffany Bennett of the University of Ottawa, is studying protein expression in a specific area of the brain. They both maintain dedicated lab facilities; Figeys oversees two rooms at the OISB facility in the Faculty of Medicine’s Roger- Guindon Hall which are outfitted with a variety of spectrometers. The institutes also trade visiting professors and post-doctoral fellows and share authorship of journal publications and intellectual property that result from their work.
Figeys is in almost daily contact with his Chinese counterparts, and visits China three to four times a year.
It was on one of these trips, in 2009, that Figeys raised the possibility of forming a joint lab with the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, a drug development unit within the Chinese government. Materia Medica leaders were keen to apply proteomics to their research, and a match was made. The joint lab was launched in 2012, based on the same principles guiding the Dalian joint lab.
They now have a growing project load. One involves diabetes patients at a number of Shanghai hospitals and colleagues in Ottawa, including Alain Stintzi (University of Ottawa) and David Mack (Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario). The researchers study microbiota in samples taken from patients’guts to study the body’s response to the disease.
Based on his experience, Figeys’advice to anyone going down this road is to be patient and build relationships based on face-to-face contact.
“One common mistake universities make, especially in China, is that they’re in a rush,” he says. “They show up and shake hands and want to have collaboration right away. That just doesn’t work. I was raised in a small town north of Montréal. There, you don’t do business with people you don’t know. It’s the same in China. You have to build trust. It’s a joint effort, not one side being dominant.”
It’s advice that Canadian universities would be wise to heed. Given the intense need to find new ways to share the financial risk of research and compete for the brightest minds, the allure of joint labs will only grow.
Lab partners around the world
In addition to the joint laboratories involving the Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology, the University of Ottawa shares a number of other labs with universities abroad which are either operational or in the works. While each has a unique mandate, they all came about organically from existing research collaborations.
The University’s Centre for Catalysis Research and Innovation (CCRI) is part of an Associated International Laboratory with the France-based École normale supérieure de Lyon (ENS) and Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). The seeds of the lab were planted in 2009 when Tom Baker, director of CCRI, co-organized a symposium on catalysis science with an ENS colleague. With funding and operational support from CNRS, the new lab, approved in January 2013, will explore how catalysts that accelerate chemical reactions can be used to convert biomass into fuel.
Chemistry also figures in a new joint lab to be administered by chemistry professor André Beauchemin and Wenjing Xiao of Central China Normal University. Xiao completed his doctorate at the University of Ottawa in the late 1990s and continued to collaborate with his Ottawa colleagues. Beauchemin and Xiao will lead a team that will develop new drug-like molecules. The joint lab should be operational in early 2014.
The Centre for Advanced Photonics has a formal research partnership with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, based in Erlangen, Germany. The partnership will deepen the work that physics professor Robert Boyd and Gerd Leuchs of the Max Planck Institute have undertaken together in the areas of photonics, non-linear optics and quantum optics.
by Alan Morantz