New funding commitment would be “very helpful”

Guest Contributor
February 18, 2003

Genome Canada strengthens international ties as it prepares for next funding phase

Genome Canada received a boost toward its objective of leveraging limited resources and strengthening international research ties with yet another collaborative project agreement with genomics researchers in Sweden. The latest bilateral project is in the area of forestry and will see the Univ of British Columbia’s Forestry Genomics Group and Stockholm-based Swedish Tree Functional Genomics Consortium pool respective research resources focused on poplar trees.

The agreement is a direct result of the international scientific cooperation agreement between Genome Canada and Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet (R$, July 16/01). That landmark 2001 deal led to collaboration on two other large-scale projects in the areas of high through-put functional genomics and expression profiles of cells and tissues in C elegans (a soil nematode and the first animal genome ever sequenced)

The latest agreement was announced as part of an official visit to canada by Swedish prime minister Goran Persson. Researchers who accompanied the Swedish delegation surprised their Canadian counterparts by bringing along a CD Rom containing 100,000 expressed sequence tags from the poplar genome, complementing and expanding the Canadian tag collection.

“That was just the start. This is a significant exchange because the Swedes are first in the area of poplars,” says Marc Lepage, Genome Canada’s executive VP corporate development

The combined Canada-Sweden projects have a value of nearly $17 million with many facets possessing significant non-financial benefits. Two further agreements with Swedish genomics research interests are anticipated within 12 months, including one that may involve Japanese researchers focused on mouse genomics.

Since Genome Canada struck its initial collaborative agreement with Sweden, it has had success with other nations including the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain (R$, May 22/02). Those agreements are in various stages of completion, and early-stage talks are underway with Germany and Italy. Bilateral agreements are viewed as the best method for leveraging skills and accessing skills absent in Canada. Genomics research is complex and very expensive, making it hard to conduct without gaining expertise from outside national borders.

The only two nations that can conceivably undertake full fledged genomics research programs autonomously are the US and UK. But even researchers from those nations seem eager to force international collaborative ties. While Genome Canada does not have formal agreements with either nation, it hasn’t hindered Canada from participating in their large-scale projects, such as the International HapMap Project (R$, November 4/02).

“We have no agreements but we have projects,” says Lepage. “It doesn’t seem appropriate to do deals first, although they may evolve into framework agreements if it will take us further along the collaborative path.

While Genome Canada is successfully executing its strategy of leveraging funding through participation in international projects, it’s also clear that far more financial assistance is needed. The recognition of Canada’s expertise in genomics research can only continue and grow if the research engine remains primed and that time is fast approaching. Officials have been quietly but insistently repeating the message ever since it received its last tranche of funding, bringing federal support up to $300 million (R$, March 5/01).

Following its last major funding competition, Genome Canada had committed all its federal funding. That means no new competitions can currently be contemplated, even though the funding is supposed to carry it through to 2005. A detailed plan has been developed which will be released in several weeks and Lepage says the government is already aware of its contents. The genome research community will be watching today’s Budget to see whether Ottawa will continue with its tradition of using year-end surplus money to fund Genome Canada.

“We are currently fine-tuning our five-year business plan and the big themes are commercialization and international collaboration,” says Lepage. “It contains quite a bit of specificity and it would be very helpful to have good news now. We can’t deal with a big hiatus until the next phase because it’s tough to keep up the momentum.”

Lepage won’t talk numbers but acknowledges that his estimation of $900 million in new federal and partner funding that he made one year ago is conservative.

“Over a five-year time frame and moving into the top three countries for genomic research, $900 million would be at the low end,” he says.


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