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Far Out

Oct 1, 2009

by Michael McCullough

A look at seven nascent technologies with commercial potential being developed in Alberta

by Michael McCullough

Stem Cell Therapies
The Alberta Council of Technologies chose to showcase stem cell therapies last June as its potentially disruptive technology of the future at forums in Calgary and Edmonton. Stem cell therapies hold the potential to combat degenerative diseases. Though stem cell research is often associated with the controversial use of embryonic stem cells (for which the Obama administration in the United States this year lifted a Bush-era ban), researchers are discovering more potential for the use of adult stem cells for regenerating related tissue. ABCtech president Perry Kinkaide foresees the day “when cells taken from your own body will be used to mend a bone, restore hair and skin or prevent, reverse or even cure diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.” Calgary-based Stem Cell Therapeutics Corp. (TSXV:SSS), meanwhile, is developing and testing drug compounds to treat diseases of the nervous system including stroke, multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury.

Nanotechnology
Nanotech, which attempts to scale down industrial solutions such as computer chips to the molecular level, is rapidly making the transition from the subject of university research to a generator of wealth in Alberta, with a number of companies already involved in micro- and nanotechnology fabrication while more and more startups focused on commercialization set up shop at the National Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Alberta. The next step, says nanoWorks chair Bruce Alton, is to create fully packaged products based on submicroscopic technologies based in Alberta, whether they be used in the forest industry or health care. One area of particular promise for Alberta and Canada is the production of cellulosic fibre from trees, a renewable material that could replace petroleum-based plastics for many applications.

Prion Research
Our province still shows the scars of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak that devastated the cattle industry in 2003. So governments, academia and industry all have an interest in prions, the proteins linked to diseases including BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans and their counterparts infecting deer and elk. In June, the Alberta Prion Research Institute, the Alberta Ingenuity Fund, other government agencies and industry collectively committed $26 million for pre-commercial research and development at locations across the province. Experts in the field have been recruited to the Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases at the University of Alberta, while the University of Calgary is building a biosafety level 2 laboratory for the purposes of prion research. Some of the research going on involves corporate collaborators including Sanimax and ChemRoutes Corporation.

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Biomaterials
Triticale is a crop able to survive in dry, nutrient-poor conditions, made famous by a 1966 Star Trek episode entitled “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Today triticale fibre is regarded as a promising ingredient in so-called bioplastics that could one day be used to make consumer products such as car parts. The federal government recently allocated $15 million to the Canadian Triticale Biorefinery Inititiative involved in some 30 triticale research and development projects across the country. In the coming years, the Edmonton-based CTBI intends to build pilot biorefineries close to producers. “Triticale could be to the biorefinery what crude oil is to the petroleum refinery,” says Richard Gibson, head of industrial bioproduct business development at the Alberta Research Council.

Metabolomics
The Human Genome Project completed in 2001 gave rise to the study of not just genes and proteins but also metabolites, the molecules that make up fats and sugars. In 2005, a 30-member team at the University of Alberta began working on its own Human Metabolome Project, meant to map the human body’s metabolites and ultimately link some to particular diseases and/or their cures. The commercial application relates to more accurate diagnosis of diseases and tailoring treatment to the patient’s metabolic makeup, vastly reducing the potential for negative side effects. That’s where Edmonton company Chenomx Inc. comes in. Chenomx is developing a suite of software that analyzes data from body fluid or tissue samples placed under a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine looking for metabolic “markers” that would suggest one form of treatment or another.

Fusion Ignition
Fusion, the reverse of the fission reaction that takes place in a nuclear reactor, got a black eye with the “cold fusion” hoax of 1989. Nonetheless the same subatomic reaction that generates the sun’s energy continues to be the subject of fevered research in the United States and France. A group of university researchers and fusion proponents called the Alberta Fusion Energy Team met with the provincial legislature’s Standing Committee on Resources and Environment in March to request $21 million to establish the Alberta/Canada Fusion Energy Program. The program would contribute to and share in the results of experiments taking place in California to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion ignition using lasers.

Carbon Algae Recycling
Alberta faces an enormous challenge to continue exploiting its vast hydrocarbon resources in a carbon-constrained world. Suddenly, finding a way to keep carbon dioxide emissions from making their way into the atmosphere has moved to the top of the scientific agenda. Closest to commercial application, but also very costly, is carbon capture and storage. But there are other solutions in the offing, such as that being undertaken by a cross-Canada consortium including the Alberta Research Council, the Alberta Energy Research Institute, Suncor Energy, EnCana Corporation and Epcor Utilities known as the Carbon Algae Recycling System. Researchers at ARC and the University of Calgary are exploring ways to use single-celled aquatic plants to absorb CO2 in ponds, producing oxygen and potentially plant matter that could itself be used as an energy source, animal feed or fertilizer.

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