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Eureka moments

Eureka moments
Environmental Proteomics has identified a protein sequence that is the same in every species, allowing them to create a multi-purpose antibody. It’s useful for studying a diverse range of organisms, including bacteria in fresh water lakes.

Tiny tools

Antibodies and other tools developed by New Brunswick biotech company are used by environmental researchers around the world

Sackville-based biotechnology company Environmental Proteomics is celebrating a decade of creating innovative tools for university, industry, and government researchers worldwide.

The “tools” are purified antibodies and calibration standards, used to detect, describe, and measure certain processes happening within plant and animal cells. The antibodies have proven valuable to a broad range of environmental researchers, whether they’re studying photosynthesis in tree lichens, heavy metal detoxification, or microbial reactions in oil wells.

The company is also involved in projects studying the effects of environmental conditions on fish stress levels (particularly useful in aquaculture studies), and of pollutants on amphibians, among others.

In April, Environmental Proteomics and a research team from Mount Allison University won funding from the Canada Foundation of Innovation to study how the phytoplanktonmediated exchange of carbon in and out of the ocean relates to climate change.

But before the company came the idea — a breakthrough by Dr. Doug Campbell, currently a Canada Research Chair at Mount Allison.

“People have used antibodies in research for a long time,” says Dr. Chris Brown, Environmental Proteomics CEO and research scientist. “If you’re working on humans and you make an antibody, first of all, there is a huge market for it … and humans are basically all biochemically the same. One antibody is going to work in every single sample.

“That’s not how things look in the environment … There’s a huge amount of diversity. You might make a tool to measure something in corn, but it may not work in barley, and it’s certainly not going to work in oceanographic samples.”

Campbell needed four or five specific antibodies for his work on photosynthesis, but creating them was cost-prohibitive. He needed both research tools and a business case for developing them.

In search of a solution, he delved into the vast amount of genetic data becoming available. “Databases were just filling up with information about the sequences for proteins, from every organism that people could get their hands on,” Brown describes.

By aligning proteins from diverse organisms, Campbell found a short sequence in a particular protein that was the same in every species. An antibody targeting that sequence could be used across organisms.

Swedish company Agrisera AB quickly agreed to make a suite of Campbell’s “global” antibodies. “They saw the light,” says Brown. “They could make an antibody that’s going to work for all of their plant customers and all of their algal researchers and bacterial researchers.”

Agrisera became the antibody seller, and Environmental Proteomics was founded (by Campbell, Brown, and Dr. Amanda Cockshutt — currently head of Mount Allison’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department) to research and develop products, including commercial and custom antibodies. Importantly, a series of calibration standards, necessary for researchers to confidently measure the levels of the protein being studied, was also developed.

These days, the co-founders work alongside staff scientists Natalie Donaher and Zakir Hossain and student interns to continue to push their work forward.

Brown reflects on the company’s growth since 2004. “In the beginning, we had nothing. After a few years, we became the designers of Agrisera’s top sellers and they sell around the world. They’re big in Europe, Asia, and North America and sell into any country doing crop research or phytoplankton research.”

He describes the company today as a “designer of quantitative tools. Until now, that has meant a lot of antibody design, but we are adapting our designs for emerging technologies.” Consulting, showing others how to use the products they’ve developed and how to quantify their results, is also a crucial part of the company’s operations.

To that end, Brown is focused on expanding the company’s reach by “finding other Canadian researchers who are doing interesting stuff … something we can collaborate on. They’re not always going to be in Canada, but that’s my current approach.”

Stephanie Porter
About Stephanie Porter

Stephanie Porter is a freelance writer and editor living in St. John’s. In 2003, she helped launch The Independent, a spirited weekly newspaper distributed across Newfoundland and Labrador, known for its investigative news and features. Stephanie was managing editor of the paper until its untimely demise in 2008. She has also worked as a reporter and writer for Downhome magazine, the Express (also now defunct), The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, picking up Atlantic Journalism Awards for her feature and news writing. Stephanie is delighted to be a regular contributor to Atlantic Business Magazine. Photo Credit: Paul Daly.

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