Quebec, the “little city” on the St. Lawrence River—little compared to its big sister 60 miles to the southwest, Montreal—is not only home to a wealth of history, spectacular scenery and architecture, and a taste of European culture, but is also becoming a regional hub of excellence in biopharmaceuticals and life sciences research, vaccines, diagnostics, optics/photonics, and nutraceuticals.
Investment in high-tech research and commercial ventures is on the rise in Quebec City, a region with 1 million inhabitants, 4.8% unemployment, and such an abundance of jobs in the technology sector that local companies participate in international job fairs to attract suitable applicants.
Quebec City’s 15 million square foot Metro High Tech Park is about 88% occupied and continually adding new companies, including names well-known in the pharma/biotech sector such as GlaxoSmithKline, Anapharm, and BD Diagnostics, a segment of BD. It is currently home to more than 90 companies and 5,000 employees.
POLE Québec Chaudière-Appalaches is the economic development agency driving entrepreneurial growth, innovation, investment, and job creation in the Quebec region. Led by CEO Carl Viel, POLE provides expertise and support in establishing strategic partnerships, technology transfer, recruitment, export opportunities, and skills development and training; it also organizes regional and international forums and expositions. The agency works closely with Investissement Quebec to identify suitable sites, capital sources, loans, tax incentives, and other financial services for commercial development and expansion.
Optics/photonics is an area of particular expertise in Quebec, with a host of researchers developing technology applications in biophotonics. At the National Optics Institute (INO), for example, researchers have developed “phantoms,” which are materials that mimic the absorption and scattering properties of living tissues, such as breast tissue, with and without a tumor that allows scientists to design imaging and detection techniques without having to work with actual tissue samples. INO is also developing a miniaturized, sheathless flow cytometer capable of single-cell analysis and an optical technique to measure local oxygen concentration in patients undergoing photodynamic therapy for cancer.
At the forefront of applying photonics and nanotechnology to neuroscience research is Yves De Koninck, Ph.D., head of the cellular and molecular neurosciences unit of the Centre de Recherche of Laval University Robert-Giffard (CRULRG). Dr. De Koninck’s research focuses on identifying the cause of chronic pain, and his group has discovered an ion pump dysfunction in the nervous system that disrupts neurotransmitter signaling and represents a promising new lead for novel drug target identification. Dr. De Koninck recently cofounded Chlorion Pharma to explore the commercial applications of these discoveries.
CRULRG collaborates with McGill University and Laval University's Center for Optics, Photonics, and Lasers to apply photonics to biological applications. For example, researchers are using light to look inside cells without disrupting their activity and specifically to image individual neurons and neural circuits as they respond to sensory information, leading to a better understanding of the mechanisms that underlie a coordinated neuronal response to a stimulus, they hope.
Other research projects at CRULRG focus on neuronal switching to treat brain trauma and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and the use of photonics to track the movement of stem cells implanted in the bone marrow of live mice.
Paul De Koninck, Ph.D., young investigator of the Canadian Institute of Health Research, is using optical technology to study how nerve cells communicate. He uses lasers to image cultured nerve cells in a 2-D network and to study how they regenerate and form synapses. By tracking fluorescently tagged proteins his team can watch individual synapses form from dendrites, visualize the plasticity of neurons, study remodeling and communication between synapses, and use optics to track neurotransmitter receptors in and out of synapses. By tagging receptors at the cell surface with functionalized quantum dots, it is possible to resolve single molecule events in situ.
Armen Saghatelyan, Ph.D., Canada research chair in postnatal neurogenesis, uses optics/photonics tools to track neural progenitor cells in real time as they migrate to specific areas of the adult brain. The goal is to learn how to control this migration and to divert the cells to damaged areas of the brain where progenitors would not normally migrate.
Daniel Côté, Ph.D., Canada research chair in biophotonics, develops optical approaches for cellular imaging of the nervous system in live animals. He has created a feedback-controlled hardware device that guides a microscope or laser to move in sync with an animal, and his group is using this device to enable in vivo, label-free optical histology to image myelin and the development of multiple sclerosis in mice.