A network serving the field of glycomics research provides a platform for connections and funding
By Sean Tarry
Within the field and study of glycomics, there are few countries around the world with the brain power and expertise as Canada. However, given the generally fragmented nature of scientific pursuits, ensuring that breakthroughs receive the appropriate attention that they deserve can be the difference between success and failure. In order to provide the exposure necessary for the advancement of breakthroughs within the field of glycomics, to connect the dots and make connections between potential collaborators, and to secure the funding that’s required to make it all happen, GlycoNet was established.
A pan-Canadian initiative, GlycoNet serves as a network of sorts, bringing together researchers with industry and academic partners to develop solutions that can help develop solutions to pressing health challenges through the study of glycomics. Sometimes referred to as glycobiology, glycomics is a specialized, multi-disciplinary branch of biology which combines chemistry, cell biology, and genetics.
Much of the scientific research in the country around glycomics has traditionally been conducted in silos. Yet, it’s research that, to fully realize its potential, requires input from a number of different disciplines. As a result, says Warren Wakarchuk, GlycoNet’s Scientific Director, the need for research support in order to enable and advance work being executed within the field is critical.
“GlycoNet was formed and has evolved to meet the needs of a multi-disciplinary science that requires input from a number of different sides and perspectives,” he explains. “It’s a research network that works with a wide variety of researchers from all across the country, from hardcore synthetic chemists to doctors who work in clinics. And because of the nature of our network, we’re able to bring professionals together from across a range of fields, facilitating collaboration and inspiring innovative work.”
With respect to generating the funding required to support all of the amazing work happening within the field of glycomics research, the network is supported in part by the Government of Canada through the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) Program, which provides GlycoNet with a base amount.The organization must then be very strategic and innovative, explains Wakarchuk, in order to supplement the funding provided by the government.
Laboratories and equipment
In addition to serving as GlycoNet’s Scientific Director, Wakarchuk is also a Professor within the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta and earned his PhD degree in Microbiology from the University of British Columbia. He’s also the former Research Officer at the National Research Council of Canada, where he served for nearly 20 years. With such a wealth of experience, it’s fair to say that he’s had the pleasure and opportunity to work within a number of laboratories across the country. And, what makes GlycoNet such a benefit to glycomics, beyond its ability to connect collaborators within the field, is the network of facilities that are included within the organization’s resources.
“We recently received funding through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Major Science Initiative,” says Wakarchuk. “What that allows us to do is to highlight analytical centres across the country that are already involved in doing glycomics research, providing these services to both academics and industry researchers alike. So, if you come to GlycoNet with a problem, we can advise you as to which facility is the best to work with to suit your needs.”
It’s all part of GlycoNet’s Integrated Services which helps to comprise its overall network. The organization works with no less than 35 different universities across the country, providing it with a trove of research specialists, state-of-the-art technical facilities and equipment, as well as an extraordinary amount of brain-power should anyone need to leverage it in order to support research that they’re conducting. Wakarchuk describes it as an “ecosystem” of experts, resources, tools and technology that come together to provide a means by which innovation can occur in provinces across the country.
And, if the results of the projects that GlycoNet has helped fund are any indication, it seems that the untapped potential within the field of glycomics research is immense. For instance, one project involves the use of enzymes that trim carbohydrate structures in order to create universal blood. The uses for this innovation are obvious from the perspective of donor blood required in a variety of emergency medical situations. Vancouver-based ABOzymes Biomedical is the company pioneering this research and has been helped by GlycoNet with some initial grants in order to get some of the academic research done as well as a stimulus to ensure the intellectual property protection. They’ve since successfully raised more funds and have generated interest from the U.S. Air Force. It’s a breakthrough that presents massive benefits going forward and a real game-changer for those working within the field of emergency medicine.
Another example of the amazing work being conducted within the GlycoNet network is a group of researchers from McGill University and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children who are working with enzymes in an incredibly creative way, creating a recombinant form of a biofilm degrading enzyme that can be used to restore antibiotic sensitivity to pathogens within the human body. These compounds can be used to treat ailments like lung infections. However, they can also be used on a patient’s catheter, preventing a biofilm from forming in the first place, in effect eliminating one of the most rampant hospital-acquired infections.
These are just two examples of the work being done within the GlycoNet network, but do well to illustrate the breadth of projects that it’s helping to facilitate across the country and the different combinations of expertise that are being brought together in order to support the work and results. They are also testaments to the potential that the network helps to unleash, providing a catalyst for big ideas and inspiration to innovate and continue to push the boundaries of glycomics research. It’s innovation that Wakarchuk suggests helps to maintain humanity’s forward momentum. However, he adds that what’s needed now in order to further advance glycobiological studies is increased investment that can serve to help facilitate the generation of more efficient and cost-effective work and faster results.
“In a sense, glycomics is at the same point now as genomics was at the end of the Human Genome Project,” he says. “In the time that it took to sequence the human genome, the technology evolved to a point where DNA sequencing had become so commonplace. Today, it’s done by just about everyone because related costs have come way down. However, it took that big investment, both by industry and government, to push the technology. Today, genomics is a driving force behind a lot of things. The technology that we use to conduct glycomics research has matured to the point where we’re ready for a rapid evolution. We’re dealing with a complexity that requires specialized and high-powered equipment and instruments to be able to provide us with the outputs that we require.”
Future of GlycoNet
When discussing the future of GlycoNet, Wakarchuk is extremely optimistic, he explains that the injection of funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which will run from 2023 to 2029, will help provide the much-needed support that researchers within the field need to continue making strides related to their studies. However, the organization’s funding provided by the NCE is going to be ending soon, prompting it to actively seek its next round of funding. It’s all part of what Wakarchuk describes as the network’s continuous effort toward providing consistent support for those working within glycomics and helping them sustain and advance the work they do. And, he adds, they’ve also got an eye on extending the work that’s supported beyond that of human health.
“We’d like to continue to grow over the near- and long-term, creating a GlycoNet 2.0, if you will, which will include a bit of an expansion outside of the human health sphere, moving more into the one health sphere. We’re already somewhat active within animal health, but we’d really like to grow our work and engagement in that area. Glycans are everywhere and play such an important role in the health of everything on the planet. As a result, there’s a really important role that GlycoNet can play in the future of glycomics research and the advancement of the science.”