S03 E05

The Future of Genomics and Life Sci in Canada


Dr. Bettina Hamelin

President and CEO

Ontario Genomics

In the fifth episode of our third season, Peter Brenders, CEO of the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation, talks with Dr. Bettina Hamelin, President and CEO of Ontario Genomics, about Canada's research environment, industry partnerships, and funding during the pandemic.



From the National Pharmaceutical Congress, welcome to the NPC Podcast for March 3, 2021. The NPC Podcast is all about discussing and considering the purpose, process and people of the pharma industry during the Age of Covid. Today, we're continuing our healthcare conversation by answering questions which come from listeners like you. 


The NPC Podcast is presented in cooperation with Impres, Impres best in class commercial solutions have a top line and bottom line growth with maximum sales force, flexibility, speed and efficiency. Learn more about their next generation commercial model at www.impres.com


On today's podcast, our guest is Bettina Hamelin, the President and CEO of Ontario Genomics in Toronto. Your host again is Peter Brenders, the CEO of the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation. To lead things off today, here's Mitch Shannon of Chronicle Companies.




Thanks Liona. 


Considering that the term genomics didn't even exist before 1986 it's really taken the world by storm. First it revolutionized the world of biology, now the effects are making their way into our world through genomic medicine and the economic impact is just starting to take shape. Last month, the company connected to Richard Branson bought the genetics testing company 23andMe, which has genotyped 11 million people so far. The deal values 23andMe at 3.5 billion US dollars. 


In Canada, the group Ontario Genomics was formed, in their words, to drive economic growth, improve quality of life and make global leadership for Ontario. The boss at Ontario Genomics is Dr. Bettina Hamelin, who spent 12 years with Pfizer in Montreal. 


Here's Bettina in conversation with Peter.




Welcome to the NPC Podcast. I'm Peter Brenders, your host. In our continuing look at the purpose, process and people in pharma in Canada. This episode explores the world of research in Canada, and in particular: genomics research. 


We're delighted to have Dr. Bettina Hamelin, a longtime industry research expert and the President and CEO of Ontario Genomics join me today from Toronto. 


Welcome to the NPC podcast, Bettina.




Hi, Peter. It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.




Delighted you could join us. Okay, so let's start by trying to get all our listeners on the same page. So two questions to open up. What is genomics research? And two: what role does Ontario Genomics play?




The biggest biological discovery of the 20th century was the discovery of a molecule that's called deoxy ribose nucleic acid, our listeners probably know that molecule and its acronym DNA. And turned out that this DNA molecule is made up of four molecules that repeat themselves in this spiral letter, the double helix, and it contains all of our about 25,000 genes. And it's often referred to as our instruction book, the instruction book, really, of all living things. People use different metaphors and sort of the code of life and it really determines who you and I are. And the sum total of all our genes is the genome. And really what happened is the discovery of the DNA and the genome and the technologies that evolved allows us to examine the DNA, open up all kinds of opportunities. 


Now we can sequence the DNA, we can use the DNA as diagnostics, we can predict risk of disease, we can use our understanding of the genetic makeup of a person to personalize medicine, I think that's an area you know, really, really well. And now we are getting very excited about the opportunity to actually edit, modify the gene, so we can actually cure monogenetic diseases. But DNA is not only present in human beings, it's present in all living things. And I bring this up, because that's very relevant to Ontario Genomics. You know, we got DNA in plants, in animals, in micro organisms. And that leads to really cool applications in agriculture and the environment, where, for example, we can use genetic information and tools to enhance crop or livestock yield. We can remediate mining sites, we can track invasive species in our environment, in our forests and our waters. And we can upcycle waste into, for example, recyclable plastics. 


So huge scope, but it takes a lot of research to, you know, come up with all these different options and treatments and improvements. And that's what genomic research does. It's diving into the genome of living things, to better understand and to use that to make life and our environment better. 


And that's really where Ontario Genomics comes in. You know, we are not-for-profit organization in Ontario. And we get excited about bringing people together, academic researchers, industry partners, other partners, to come together to solve some of those big issues and to seek opportunities for solutions in the genome of human beings, of plants, animals, microbes, wherever we can find DNA.




Okay, so that's huge. So genomics, to your point, touches way more than just health, what we've been talking to in our pharma space. So I don't think we have enough time to cover all those applications. So let's focus a bit and talk about where the pharma industry is involved. And so maybe you can give us, you know, you talked about those partnerships. So maybe you can give us a couple examples where pharma could be involved in domestic genomics research.




Yeah, lots of examples of where pharma is involved and where pharma could be involved to a much greater extent. We've certainly had great fortune of working with some of the major pharma companies that look for, you know, opportunities to enhance their internal pipeline. An example is Roche Diagnostics, very interested, obviously, in always optimizing diagnostic tests. And we have supported there a partnership with with Dr. Liu, and they have been working on heart failure biomarkers, and the goal is to identify new biomarkers that then can become diagnostic tests that, you know, are an opportunity for Roche. 


Another example is the Structural Genomics Consortium. This is a big public/private partnership, actually a very interesting model where about 10 pharma companies are working with researchers in Toronto in an initiative led by Al Edwards, a consortium that now has arms into many different jurisdictions. And really what the pharma industry here is interested in is this very forward looking research of understanding the three dimensional structure of proteins. So essentially, we talk about the genome, but the genome gets translated proteins, proteins that make up our skin, or our eyes or hair or our organs. And it's those proteins that can have defects that cause disease. And so the opportunity to understand these proteins and find new targets with treatments is really interesting. And so there's about 10 companies involved in this partnership. 


And I could, you know, list a number of partnerships where pharma has become interested in an asset of a small company that came out was, you know, spun out of a research partnership and, you know, has interesting molecules for the pharma industry to bring into their portfolio. Of course, what we, you know, as an Ontario Canadian organization, hope for is that these are fruitful, win/win collaborations that are of benefit for the pharma industry, but also of benefit to the Canadian research environment and the Canadian economy.




You're listening to Dr. patina Hamelin, President and CEO of Ontario genomics. 


So when you say benefit, you're talking about how you can start to see investment back in, in terms of building our research ecosystem?




Absolutely, absolutely. I think it's about co-investment. It's about sharing risks, but it's also about sharing the benefits. So you know, there is this notion, a little bit among, you know, stakeholders, particularly in government that, you know, sometimes, you know, companies come in, they get our IP, and they walk away with the IP. I think that there's many, many examples where that's not happening, but I think we need to always consciously think about, how do we make this a win/win. And, you know, in Canada, we want to build our industry, we have great potential. But we benefit from partnerships with Big Pharma, quite frankly, because there's a lot of mentorship, there's a lot of learnings. And no one company, certainly not a startup company, can engage in a whole clinical trial path. So you know, those partnerships are absolutely critical for Canada, but we'd like to keep some of the assets in Canada as well.




Fair enough. And what I'm hearing in this research too, this is not your typical pharma late stage clinical trials. I mean, this is earlier avenues for precision medicine, developing some to your point you mentioned real IP. So take me through, where do you think companies might be missing the opportunity here to partner, we've got such strong research? I hear the programs that Ontario Genomics has. Where should we be doing more?




So I think you know, what is challenging for us and for the industry is to find the right opportunity. And you know, I've spent many years in the pharma industry myself, the world is a big place. And what we need to do in Canada is to not be afraid to go out there and look for those partners and be very proactive about it, position us in a way that makes us an attractive partner. You know, pharma industry is going, obviously, where the best research is happening. But they're also looking for really good people to work with and Canadians are really good to work with. 


The pharma industry is also looking to leverage funding and for incentives and for good business environments. And that needs to be provided. And I think the pharma industry also needs to be open minded to opportunities that are outside their usual environments that they would be looking for. You know, the pharma industry is anchored in the US and in Europe and, you know, generally, graduates from European and US universities see the pharma industry as a job opportunity. 


Now, in Canada, we don't have big pharma research. And therefore, there's sort of this issue in the pharma industry that, you know, the graduates of these jurisdictions find jobs in this industry. And then they look back to their own alma mater to find a research partnership. And they don't look for Canada. So we need to make a really, really good effort to showcase what we have and bring pharma in and government needs to support us because it does take incentives.




It's an interesting message on them, because it's sort of a two way street is what you're saying. That the one is farmer needs to take a look at that there are opportunities here, think about this one. But at the same hand, we have things to work on ourselves, we being government policy, being the ecosystem itself, needs to be a bit more attractive, you just can't magically see it happen. And I think if we reflect on what's going on in terms of vaccine production and availability in Canada is just hasn't been at the top of anyone's list lately. And we have some challenges. So, Bettina, when you when you think about sort of that ecosystem that we have, then where's the frustration?




What frustrates me so much, Peter, is that, you know, Canada is so strong in research. We certainly develop IP, we create companies that actually create therapeutics and the example of QLT always comes to mind and Visudyne for macular degeneration. A molecule that was discovered in BC and UBC that was developed in BC that reached the market, and BC never reimbursed the drug. So this aspect of innovation, we want innovation, but we also need to reward innovation. And I think that's, you know, something where Canada just falls short.




You're listening to the NPC Podcast. 


So speaking of challenges, let me go on another tack. We've talked a bit about Covid in this podcast series with a lot of other guests before and the impact thereof, and I've heard how it hit the Canadian charities and their ability to fund research. But what about you guys at Ontario Genomics? What are you seeing, has Covid had an adverse impact? Or have there been any silver linings coming out of the pandemic with respect to genomics research?



So I would say, both sides, I'd say, you know, as an organization, obviously, we are working from home, and we have been working from home for a year. So it certainly changed the dynamic in our organization in terms of how we engage with stakeholders, because our work is based on engaging stakeholders. 


But you know, the research environment is actually a really interesting one, I would say, like silver lining, that, you know, many of us are talking about is that it has really brought people together, it has helped break down some silos. And you know, we have been, Ontarioo Genomics has been very active in creating a network in Ontario to enhance viral sequencing for Ontario. And that required bringing together Public Health Ontario, a number of sequencing platforms, clinicians, data scientists, epidemiologists, and we brought these people together who would normally work in sort of their individual environment or institutional environments. And so this crisis has brought people together because everybody wants to be part of the solution. 


So, I think that was a really, really great benefit of the crisis if one can talk about benefits of a crisis, but certainly, you know, in terms of research funding, I would say that the federal and the provincial government have put forward quite a bit of funding for research. And I think that's a good thing. Could that funding have been a little bit more aligned? Maybe. But, you know, certainly lots of funding available for all kinds of work in Covid. And it's managed at all kinds of different levels. So I think in terms of research, actually, again, silver lining, quite a bit of money available for research in Covid.




We've certainly seen that the solution to the pandemic is life sciences research, everyone's relying on that. So let's put on the, let's take a look into the crystal ball. So Bettina, what does the future hold for genomics research in Canada? What are your long term plans?




I mean, I think what the Coronavirus, as you say, has brought forward is that science and genomics and data are the most important sciences going forward. So I feel incredibly privileged to be right in the midst of it, to be able to facilitate a better understanding of genomes, of organisms, whether it's viruses or humans or other living things. 


So, you know, there's a very interesting report that was published by McKinsey last year, it's entitled 'The Bio Revolution'. And that report really illustrates nicely that there is an opportunity, or a prediction that by 2030 to 2040, about 60% of the inputs into the economy is biological. And the root of that is genomics, proteins, modification of proteins and what can we do with microorganisms. We can put all kinds of genes in yeast and use fermentation like we used for breadmaking or winemaking, but now we make it to make products, drugs, biotherapeutics, bio products, fabrics, etc, that we need. 


So where I see us going is obviously we continue to spark, to support, to nurture genomics research in the health sector, in advanced biological approaches. But we're also thinking of what the pandemic has shown us, that there are other supply chains that are at risk and that can benefit from genomics. And you know, that refers to some of the other areas that are non health, but that are incredibly important when we think about how are we going to produce food in the future? How are we using our biomass in Canada? Are we continuing to cut trees and send them to China so that they can be processed there? Or can we actually turn this biomass into useful value added products, using genomics, microbes, etc? 


So I see genomics research, providing solution for healthier people, but also a healthier environment to combat climate change, and to deal with the pollution that we are creating around ourselves. So it's an incredibly bright future that's ahead of us. And we're right in the midst of it.




So there's the snippet for everyone, all the NPC listeners there that the future is genomics, and between is not biased at all. So we just want to put that out there.




Not biased! 




Little bias, maybe...


That's fantastic! I really appreciated hearing these thoughts and thinking about where genomics research is going how important it has been to our health system. You have been listening to Dr. Bettina, Hamelin, President and CEO of Ontario Genomics. Thank you for listening to the NPC Podcast.




Thanks to Bettina and Peter. 


If you want to learn more about Bettina's organization, they've got a pretty cool website at www.OntarioGenomics.ca


As for us, we're here to help you decode what's happening in the life sciences every Wednesday on the NPC Podcast, you might say we put the G in genome. Past episodes are available on Google Podcasts, Apple iTunes, Stitcher, and everywhere you get your podcasts, and you can subscribe at pharmacongress.info. 


Listeners, if you have questions for Peter or any of our upcoming guests. You can direct message us on Twitter @2021NPC or just send us an email to health@chronicle.org. A third option is to call and leave your message on our comment line at 647-873-6995. 


This winter series of the NPC Podcast is presenting in cooperation with Impres Canada's next generation commercial partner, learn more at www.impres.com


In Toronto, I'm Mitch Shannon of Chronicle Companies. This episode was produced by Jeremy Visser, your announcer is Liona Fitzdroid. The musical theme is performed by the NPC Podcast Orchestra under the direction of Maestra Joanne Millbrook. 


Have a good weekend. Stay safe. We'll talk to you again next Wednesday.