MONTREAL — Support is building for a national genomics research program in Canada. This follows the announcement at "The Crossroad of Biotechnology" 1998 symposium, held in Montreal last week, that the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada has become the second federally funded organization to join a new foundation to oversee genomics research, called Genome Canada.

In June, the Medical Research Council of Canada endorsed a proposal by a genome task force to create Genome Canada to coordinate the activities of a consortium of public and private organizations and stakeholders in this burgeoning area of scientific research. Along with its endorsement, the council formally committed C$5 million (US$3.2 million) per year for the next five years to support medical genomics research.

Lap-Chee Tsui, leader of Genome Canada, told BioWorld International that the addition of the NRC is a major boost and adds credibility to the campaign to mobilize and build a world-class genomics infrastructure in Canada. The NRC spends close to C$60 million annually on its national biotechnology program, supporting both basic and collaborative research conducted at several biotechnology-focused research institutes. The NRC has significant research expertise and programs in genomics.

Tsui, senior scientist and Sellers Chair of Cystic Fibrosis Research in the department of genetics at the Research Institute of the Hospital for Sick Children, in Toronto, has been one of Canada's most ardent supporters of genomics research. However, federal support for genome research was virtually eliminated when the government decided not to renew the Canadian Genome Analysis and Technology Program, a C$22 million, five-year effort that linked into the international Human Genome Project. The absence of a formal genome program was identified by Canada's National Biotechnology Advisory Committee as a significant threat to the country's biotechnology industry. In its report, "Leading in the Next Millennium," the panel was critical of the government's scientific policy. It stated that there had been a negative impact on Canada's ability to participate in genome research, and the country's opportunity to take part in the next wave of post-genomic innovation was therefore in serious jeopardy.

This criticism, along with strong support from Canada's bioscience community, led to the formation of a genome task force and the subsequent creation of Genome Canada. Although no formal budget figures have been finalized for Genome Canada, Tsui said it is aiming to secure funding commitments of C$495 million to support research over the next five years. This will include financial and infrastructure commitments from all the major players in the field, as well as new federal funds. The funding will be directed at placing Canada in the forefront of discovery and research training in genomics.

Task Force Member: Canada Must Invest

According to Tom Hudson, professor of human genetics at Montreal's McGill University and assistant director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Genome Center, in Boston, Canada has little choice but to make some serious and coordinated investments or basically lose out on what is recognized worldwide as the most significant scientific initiative of the 21st century. Hudson is a member of the Genome Canada Task Force.

Genome Canada, which is hoping to become fully operational by March 1999, is designed to allow the entry and participation of all groups with a stake in genome research, said Tsui. Through a combination of major genome research centers, research grants, university/industry collaborations, training and networking, funding will support a series of seven technology platforms: technology development; bioinformatics; genome mapping and sequencing; functional genomics; proteomics; genotyping; and the study of ethical, legal and social implications.

Genome Canada will operate as a not-for-profit corporation with a board of directors made up of funders, partners and stakeholders. The board will appoint an independent international scientific advisory committee and hire a full-time president to supervise administrative and business issues and intellectual property.

The next stage in the process will be to hold a number of informational meetings across Canada to formally introduce Genome Canada to the scientific and industrial biotechnology community, Tsui said. *