Solving Canadian health challenges through systems biology

- Ottawa, Ontario

The University of Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology (OISB) and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) are initiating an exciting collaboration on systems biology, aimed at solving some of today's most significant health challenges.

Systems biology takes a big-picture approach to understanding the body and disease. "This multidisciplinary field of biomedical research is one of the most promising avenues for the discovery and validation of new treatments," says OISB Director Dr. Mary-Ellen Harper.

OISB will deploy their strengths in metabolomics, proteomics, gene expression analysis, and model systems to complement the NRC's expertise in artificial intelligence (AI), bioinformatics, and human health therapeutics. Together, experts will advance projects on COVID-19, cell and gene therapies for cancer, and diseases affecting the aging population. The agreement also provides a framework to develop research projects in areas of mutual interest.

The collaboration will result in scientific publications, training of highly qualified personnel, and the development of intellectual property and enabling technologies. It will also generate partnership opportunities for the Canadian biotech industry to progress research findings to commercialization, where patients can benefit.


Current collaborative projects

Finding novel solutions for COVID-19 health concerns

Researchers from OISB and the NRC's Digital Technologies Research Centre are investigating the body's complex responses to COVID-19 infection.

Several ongoing projects examine the links between COVID-19, delirium and dementia. Delirium is an indicator of brain vulnerability, and is a risk factor for development of dementia. About 10% of COVID-19 patients experience delirium. Researchers hope to determine if COVID-19 infection increases the risk of developing dementia later in life.

"These innovative research projects combine OISB's strengths in lipidomics, metabolomics, and mitochondrial biology with our expertise in analytical and AI approaches," says the NRC's Dr. Miroslava Cuperlovic-Culf, who is partnering with Drs. Steffany Bennett and Mary-Ellen Harper of the OISB. "We hope to open new avenues to treating COVID-19 and addressing post COVID-19 health concerns."

Working toward accessible and affordable cell and gene therapies

Cell and gene therapies can be game-changing for patients with life-threatening conditions like cancer and genetic diseases, but adapting their design for different therapeutic applications and producing them for use in the clinic is challenging. Researchers from the NRC's Digital Technologies and Human Health Therapeutics Research Centres are working with OISB, the uOttawa Faculty of Engineering and other academic partners to apply AI to the design and production of these promising therapies.

On the design side, they will use AI to improve the design of gene therapies and their delivery vectors to help address genetic diseases. Researchers will also apply data analytics to understand and predict the interactions between different kinds of molecules involved in cell therapy, and apply their findings to molecule design.

In terms of production, the team will create a digital twin of bioreactors where cell and gene therapies are produced. This will help them optimize production conditions so they can obtain larger quantities of high-quality material for preclinical and clinical trials.

"Our collaboration with OISB links cell and gene therapy developers, biomanufacturing experts, AI specialists and clinicians, and aims to make cell and gene therapies more accessible to patients"

Kelley Parato
Director of the NRC's Cell and Gene Therapy Challenge program

"We are very fortunate to access the expertise of OISB scientists, including Drs. Derrick Gibbings and Ted Perkins, as we work to increase the safety, efficacy and specificity of personalized therapies with reduced cost and side effects"

Dr. Kevin Thomson
Director of the NRC's AI for Design Challenge program

Developing pre-symptomatic diagnostics for age-related diseases

By 2050, older adults are expected to represent 25% of Canada's population, which brings a specific set of challenges related to their health and well-being.

Researchers from OISB and the NRC are collaborating to determine methods for early, pre-symptomatic diagnosis of dementias and Parkinson's disease by combining systems biology with AI and advanced analytics. Early diagnosis and disease modelling is expected to lead to improved treatment options and preventative measures.

"Often, by the time dementia is diagnosed, there is already a significant accumulation of misfolded and aggregated alpha-synuclein in the brain," says Dr. Jagdeep Sandhu from the NRC, who is working with Dr. Steffany Bennett of the OISB. "If patients who are likely to develop dementia could be identified early, they could begin treatments much sooner, to delay or prevent the onset of the disease and its symptoms."


Miroslava Cuperlovic-Culf
NRC Digital Technologies Research Centre
Telephone: 613-993-0116

Sue Twine
NRC Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre
Telephone: 613-949-7545

Mary-Ellen Harper
Director, OISB
Professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa
Telephone: 613-562-5800 (8459)

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