Genome Canada's deep pockets and ambitious genomics plans are trickling down to the lower levels where the actual work will be done.

Genome Canada-funded Genome Prairie, in partnership with Inimex Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Pyxis Genomics Inc., began a C$27 million (US$17.1 million) project to fight pathogenic infections in both man and animal.

The project, officially called "Functional Pathogenomics of Mucosal Immunity," will use genomics to study how pathogens affect the genes of not only hosts, but also of the pathogens themselves. The goal is to identify new mechanisms of disease, hopefully leading to new treatments.

"The project has one major scientific focus: to understand how humans and domestic animals - farm animals, mainly - are able to fight off infectious diseases," said Randal Johnston, president and CEO of Genome Prairie. "What we are trying to do is use genomics to understand how our cells and tissue respond to those infectious agents. By learning about those genes and response pathways, we anticipate that we will find ways in which we can make our immune systems work better, develop vaccines or devise new antibiotics that do not currently exist."

Although the project is aimed at both animals and humans and the research will be done "in parallel," Johnston told BioWorld Today that since products can be developed more quickly in animals, "we expect to see the first impact of our efforts on the animal side."

Half of the C$27 million will be supplied by Genome Canada, with the remaining C$13.5 million coming from Vancouver, British Columbia-based Inimex; Chicago-based Pyxis; the Saskatchewan government; and the entity Western Economic Diversification.

Inimex, founded in late 2001 and a company of about 10 employees, was formed on a technology born out of "observations regarding a novel class of peptides that selectively up-regulate elements of the innate immune response," said its CEO and president, Jeffrey Bacha. Inimex will be responsible for the human side of the project's research.

Inimex has pulled in some seed funding, enough to "turn the lights on and start to build the team," Bacha said, but it expects to complete a financing early next year to expand its drug development team. Bacha anticipates having two groups at his company - one working on the Genome Canada project, and the other on internal drug development.

Originally branching off from the University of British Columbia, Inimex is still wet behind the ears in biotechnology terms, but if it's youthful, it's precociously youthful.

"It's a very strong position for us to be in as a young company - positioned with world class researchers in both Canada and the U.S. and to be embarking on a project of this nature that has the potential to open new doors for the ways diseases are treated," he told BioWorld Today.

Inimex and Pyxis will receive research funding as part of the project and have been granted exclusive rights to discoveries - Pyxis' rights are in the animal health field and Inimex gets rights for human products.

Pyxis will establish a Canadian subsidiary for the project, and there is plenty of support from elsewhere. Lorne Babiuk, from the Veterinary Infectious Diseases Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, is co-leading the project, along with Bob Hancock at the University of British Columbia. Also, Simon Fraser University and the British Columbia Cancer Agency will be involved.

Genome Prairie is one of five genome centers established and funded by Genome Canada. Genome Canada was incorporated in February 2000 to develop a national strategy for genomics research in the country. It received C$300 million from the Canadian government to establish five research centers, which are Prairie, Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. (See BioWorld Today, May 10, 2002.)

The pathogenic project is funded for three years. Johnston said that, after three years, he'd like to have candidates for development. But for now, the project is just getting rolling and the work is early. That doesn't mean there aren't high hopes, however.

"This is the largest genomics project approved and funded in Canada," Johnston said. "We are pleased to see contributions from both a Canadian and an American company. We think it reflects the quality of research we are undertaking, which should have benefits for Canada, the economy and human and animal health worldwide."