Bringing the bio-revolution to Canada: Towards a pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy (CSPC2021, Pre-conference sessions)

Hello, and welcome to a very special dispatch from scientificanada. I’m your host Adam Fortais. Soon, the Canadian Science Policy Conference will begin, but before it does, we’ve got a handful of pre-conference panels and sessions to wet (whet) our whistles, so to speak. I will be doing my best to provide some coverage of the sessions as they come. I’m predicting that I will get overwhelmed at some point in the next two weeks, so don’t expect a nightly debrief, but I’ll do my best to get these out as quickly as possible. 

I will be taking notes and recording audio so you can access this stuff however you find most comfortable. The audio will be uploaded to YouTube in case you are looking for captioning. If there are any other ways I can make these more accessible, let me know and I’ll do my best to accommodate.

LISTEN // CAPTION


Bringing the bio-revolution to Canada: Towards a pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy

Organized by: Genome Canada

Twenty years after the Human Genome Project, genomics is delivering on its promise: a big data science that—combined with AI, gene editing and biomanufacturing—is revolutionizing our wellbeing and economies. The U.K., U.S. and others are launching genomics strategies to maximize impact for their citizens. Canada is doing the same. Budget 2021 announced $400M for a new Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy to build on the excellence Canada has built in genomics. This session will explore what it will take to build an effective Strategy, opportunities for Canada’s continued leadership in genomics, and the confluence of genomics with other transformational technologies.​​​​


The major takeaways here were our need for our own big database of genomic data that can be used by government, research, industry, etc. The panelists referred to the UK BioBank many times as the best (and only?) example of this, and it’s the consensus that Canada could be the second, if we manage to get our ducks in a row.

This was an exciting session, basically it kind of felt like a room of very smart people getting handed a huge sum of money, and asking them how to use it to become world leaders in genomics. Probably because that is more or less what it was. I took a bunch of notes, which you can find on scientificanada.ca, but here I will try to summarize a few of the more interesting points I gleaned from the session. 

  1. Data generation is a huge issue, but we have the technology and the smarts, it just seems like a matter of getting the governmental OK, and the money to do it. It was mentioned a few times that “data is the new oil”, except that data can be used over and over and over. So really what they mean is that genomic data is what will power the “bio-revolution”. It was pointed out that previously the bottleneck was access to technology, but these days, especially in Canada, we have access to all the technology we need to do almost anything with genetic sequencing, editing, etc. What the limitation is now is the imagination to propose projects, and access to the amount of data needed to perform these studies. 

It was pointed out that a lot of the most innovative, funding-grabbing projects are not data collection projects. The top experts aren’t really thinking about how to get the data, but instead what to do with the data, because that’s what gets into the top journals. It makes sense that based on the incentives academia has, we would be lagging the massive collection of data that we really need to make some big leaps. Again, the UK BioBank came up as an example of getting all levels of research on board to create this big shared database that could be used for fundamental research, industrial research, etc. It costs money, but it seems like it is worth the investment. 

  1. Data stewardship is an important factor; something we can do, but it will take time and effort. One of the big bridges to cross in the process of building a genomic BioBank type database is getting all the legal aspects in line. Since genomic data needs to come from people, we need to respect their rights to privacy, can’t do anything weird with their information, and actively protect the data. It was pointed out that in most cases, the technology to protect data like this does not need to be re-invented, but putting the pieces together is a big, expensive process. One of the big ideas behind how to do this is to have the data stored in one central location that researchers dip into. No sending and receiving huge chunks of data. Not only are we talking about PETABYTES of data such that sending and receiving would be insane, we are also talking about fewer changing of hands, which also means fewer opportunities for data to be compromised. I am personally curious if there is anything we can pull from the particle physics community, and the Large Hadron Collider experiments. I know they produce more data than you could ever imagine, I’m sure they would be good resources on how to do this. 

As far as the legal aspects go, Canada was described as more or less starting from zero, but our recent COVID experiences have really pushed us to sort a lot of things out. This was not simple, but was the important step in actually getting our feet under us during the pandemic. Education was also difficult, not just for the PIs and researchers (legal, privacy, security) but also for the people giving their data. With COVID we were at a great disadvantage compared to places like the UK because the legal stuff was starting from zero. But in less than 18 months we have around 7000 fully sequenced COVID samples in our database, which is amazing. But we need to do better. 

A final point made: fostering open science has made for huge gains in the past. The infamous Human Genome Project is a perfect example of international collaboration, their started with the dictate that the HUMAN GENOME SHOULD BE OPEN TO EVERYONE WHO WANTS IT. Other examples of big, wide-open and collaborative research comes from DARPA, which really accelerated things like GPS and the internet. DARPA’s model is often cited as the best way to develop with minimal bureaucracy, allowing projects to fail fast and fail big. 

  1. The final, big talking point I’d like to mention was the discussion on talent development and retention, which really needs to be addressed. The main sentiment was that Canada is doing amazing with regards to training new experts and getting them up to speed, only to lose them to the US and Europe. Identifying what will make them stay and how to attract out of country talent. This point kind of encompasses every aspect of the story so far, so it’s a nice one to end on.

A big part of keeping and attracting talent is creating an ecosystem that puts them in contact with the best people, the best technology, and all the data they can eat. Many researchers are of the mind that being excellent is only part of being successful, in the research race, you really want to have a big competitive advantage wherever it is you decide to work. For example, Sick Children’s Hospital in Canada has been killing it, and is ranked as one of the best research hospitals globally. Apparently the last 3 researcher acquisitions cited this fact as the main attractor to coming to Canada. People don’t want to start from the ground up, they want everything they need right away. 

The discussion then moved to the idea of “Centres of Excellence”, which have been a dominating and successful system around the world. Summarizing the problem, experts feel they need a competitive advantage to actually even survive. Centres represent critical mass of experts across different areas, lots of ripe collaborations, but also access to the data! These “centres” do have some baked-in issues that need to be considered when pitching them. Detractors may rightfully ask, “Why give more money to the rich” so to speak? Which is kind of what centres do. To mitigate this, you really want centres to be committed to DIVERSE EXCELLENCE, not just in words but also with real, tangible funding. It wasn’t mentioned explicitly, but I see this as a great way to simultaneously approach the education issue mentioned before. Widening the net of researchers and ideas that can get into these centres is a good chance to reach out and invest in outreach and early-career researchers, where you can instill important aspects of data security, confidentiality, consent, etc. Finally, it was mentioned that a lot of these centres are academia focused. Bringing it all back around to the economy, a big question is how to get industry partners involved. 

This was a very exciting panel in my opinion with a lot of ideas to chew on. If you want my full, Live Notes, you can get them at scientificanada.ca

Tomorrow is a day off, so no new recap, but Friday we will be back at it. I will say though, The AlmaMAC, one of scican’s other shows with Host Sawayra Owais is back in the studio LIVE on 93.3 CFMU in Hamilton, or CFMU.ca. If you miss the live show, it will go up on the feed on Friday. There is also a new Random Walk episode coming out tomorrow. All of this is coming to you through the same channels, so make sure to like and subscribe to Scientificanada wherever you are consuming this content now. Or of course, follow me on Twitter @AdamFortais and I’ll let you know when and where everything goes up.

Anyway, that’s all we’ve got! Thanks for listening, talk soon. 


Live Notes

Baseline: Budget 2021 announced $400M for a new Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy to build on the excellence Canada has built in genomics.

What do you see as our genomics strategy going forward?

Naveed: In the last 20 years genomics has revolutionized biology study. Also, multi-disciplinary approaches. Deeply rooted in the fundamental “ecosystem”… A fundamental thing is the connection between Big Science and Big Data. “Data is the new oil” but oil is non-renewable… Important elements for genomics 1) Data generation (Canada lags behind) 2) stewardship of the data (how do we manage, share, while keeping privacy) 3) technology development 4) talent development (possibly most important). “When we talk about the future, we are talking about building on what we already have. We have gotten a lot of funding for genomics through a wide range of strategic investments, we have to build on this success.

I am interested in data privacy… 

What are our strengths, what are our gaps, where can we do more, etc?

Steve: Genomics is poised where Shopify was a few years ago, ready to POP OFF. And the pandemic has been an inflection point that really brought genomics into the forefront. He teaches his classes that the experiments are only limited by CREATIVITY. We can kind of do anything we want biologically now! Our biggest strength is our trainees and workforce, but our biggest heel is BRAIN DRAIN to USA and EU. A classic Canadian characteristic. Funding etc needs to do better to keep talent, but it works both ways. Create the environment to hold on to experts. BUT there is a LOT of investment in biotech in Canada now. Hospital for Sick Children is looking at a lot of translational research, not just research, but assessment tech, etc etc. All aspects kind of. We also need to strike a balance though, where we aren’t fully focused on new tech, but fundamental research and IP protection. **We have a lot of well-connected people from the highly successful Human Genome Project in our country, so we should aim to use their experience and networks. 

I am interested in genomics IP strategies… 

Comment on strategy to support innovative companies, other priority areas from the government.

Sarah: (I am the only industry rep…) One of the GC mandates is connecting research and industry but we haven’t done great at making PRODUCTS… We see genomics coming as an important piece of preventative care and diagnostics. Also to select breeds for global warming mitigation farming etc. There are a lot of avenues we can monetize… Most companies are doing medical stuff, but why not animal breeding etc. We are building these companies based on the last 20 years of academia, so how can we bring all these things together to help INDUSTRY. We are decently well covered by the GAP (?) program from GC to make proof of concept developments. The next step is harder, making a good, solid device but we need access to lots of genomic data, but we need to get this data! A lot of the data is from academia, and the rights and stuff make it difficult to bring the data to industry to be used. ALSO we need the infrastructure to process PETABYTES of data. TAKE HOME: we need closer collaboration between all levels (GC, academia, industry) so we can use all this information and tech in hospitals, research, and industry. 

Canadian genomic testing company that has people sign off on using data for government-industry research?

What should we consider in supporting strategy from international collabs with funding?

Chonnettia: Lesson #1 = China announced a national plan, on track to outspend the USA. Innovation is a KEY national priority. The UN reported sci, tech, training is synonymous with the economy, and research and development spending has been skyrocketing. Lesson #2 = foster open science, Human Genome Program is a perfect example of international collaboration, HUMAN GENOME SHOULD BE OPEN TO EVERYONE WHO WANTS IT (Clinton + Blaire in the 90s). Also, DARPA = GPS, internet, etc etc. Its model is often cited as the best way to develop with minimal bureaucracy, allowed to fail fast and fail big. COVID successes because of long-term investments. Lesson #3 = a story about developing vaccines

****

Naveed: UK biobank is a model – built together with industry so that universities, government, and industry can use it

Sarah: This big investment will generate other BIG investments. Of course, lots needs to be discussed, like access from industry etc. 

Audience Q: The pandemic engendered open collaboration in R&D for the sake of expediency; however, applying the lessons of emerging technology like social media (i.e. Facebook) how should government act to prevent the rise of knowledge monopolies (Trans Nationals) that can bypass or ignore national-level regulation?

— what are some of the risks? Are they genuine? How can we balance? **crickets**

It

Steve: Are we talking about genetic data?

Mod: A lot of people think the sharing is TOO strict at this point, but how do we make sure the data doesn’t get shared too widely?

Steve: A problem we kind of wish we could discuss, but we just don’t have a bank of data. Flipping it back to KEEPING TALENT IN CANADA. “You need to be close to the technology” was the advice growing up. Now the advice is “you need to be close to the data”. So we really need LARGE DATA GENERATION PROJECTS. UK Biobank is good, but we are really just contributing to THEIR stuff. But yes, as you say, we do need to keep all of this in mind, but we do have Canadian groups working on this. 

Sarah: A lot of the security aspects are resolved by technology. Not easy, but a totally “physical” thing to implement. We need to lose the “sending data” to places, and instead keep it all in the same spot, not duplicated, not dispersed. Tech can do a lot to protect privacy, private life, etc. But will need significant investment. Industry is ready to do it but we need to bring them in.

Questions: Why are we slow at generating data? Is it known why we are lagging? 

Naveed:  It pretty much is funding. 20 years of investments have helped, but maybe its time to re-evaluate WHERE the money goes… Data is lacking, so why? All of the other key elements seem to be there. Another question answered: to keep talent, we need to provide the tech and the data HERE to keep people. 

Steve: Experts don’t really care about HOW to generate the data, but want to USE the data, because that’s how you make big discoveries. Interesting: we are in a world where gold-standard sequencing costs about $1000 for academia. We are pushing towards getting it to $100, which could be revolutionary. It used to be “thoughtful science” was not where the money was (??)

Data generation is not a sexy project, but it’s a necessary one. So this needs to get stimulated with money. 

More on the data generation: what are the systemic challenges? Not a tech problem, but regulatory and cultural?

Naveed: I think the key for us was getting the legal and consent aspects right. This was not simple, but was the important step in actually getting our feet under us. Education was also difficult, not just for the PIs and researchers (legal, privacy, security) but also for the people given their data. With COVID we were at a great disadvantage because the legal stuff was starting from ZERO. So research at speed was a big challenge (starting to fix now). But in less than 18 months we have around 7000 fully sequenced COVID samples in our database, which is amazing. But we need to do better. 

There is a global competition for talent. Sarah (industry) what are the challenges to obtaining, attracting, etc

Sarah: Not just restaurant and service industry in Canada aching for employees! Big IT companies are recruiting from everywhere (Facebook, Amazon, etc), letting them stay where they are but get paid in USD. An emerging problem in IT that both academia and startups are going to continue facing. No solution, yet…  

Chonnettia: Centres of Excellence around the world are kind of the way to go I think. Summarizing the problem, experts feel they need a competitive advantage to actually even survive. Centres represent critical mass of experts across different areas, lots of ripe collabortatios, but also need access to the data! Referred to some centres in Africa. “Why give more money to the rich” so to speak? Which is kind of what centres do. Well, because people will leave if they don’t get in.

Steve: Children’s Hospital ranked as TOP research hospital in the world for something, and the most recent recruits have cited this as the reason they came here; wanting to be at THE BEST place. A UK Biobank model is THE PERFECT solution to drive genomics forward. WE JUST NEED A VISIONARY AT THE TOP OF THE GOVERNMENT TO DO IT, WE KNOW HOW TO DO IT, WE JUST NEED THE GO-AHEAD AND THE MONEY.

How does this look with the 400M renewed investment? Need more money or different money? Or advocating for how to spend it?

Chonnettia: Somewhat critical of Centres of Excellence, but not totally the story. They can be more active about EDI by actually putting money towards it, and then the “paying the rich” critique is lessened. INCLUSIVE EXCELLENCE.

I think I see how this can be earmarked to also pay into the “education” aspect of the problem, since this kind of thing can bring more attention to EVERYTHING.

Sarah: A lot of our Excellence is kind of an Academics thing, and kind of excludes industry a bit. Is there not a way to have Industry centres for excellence?

Genetic non-discrimination act: An important part of Canadian History and Science History. ALSO, we could be the SECOND country to have a big ole bank!!!

November 30, genome canada town hall 

** every panel, someone emphasizes they are not (industry)/(academia) **

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UK_Biobank

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