TORONTO - Twenty-one Canadian companies made presentations recently at the Building Value in Canadian Life Sciences two-day conference, demonstrating the progress of biotechnology in Canada, particularly in the fields of cancer and genomics.

Calvin Stiller, chairman of the conference, told BioWorld International, “The conference is timely. The Canadian life sciences market continues to grow, with venture capital investment increasing from around C$50 million in 1994 to over C$400 million last year.“

Stiller, chairman and CEO of the Canadian Medical Discoveries Fund (CMDF) and one of the sponsors of the event, said the life sciences sector in Canada is at a critical stage in its development.

“The potential for consolidation is ripe. We have many small companies with excellent technologies, but few in the C$300 million market cap and above range. Due to the small number of large biotech companies, the sector has not been able to generate significant market attention,“ he added.

Stiller anticipated the conference will become a major annual opportunity for early discussions between companies with mutual interests, as well as an occasion for venture capitalists and investors to network with privately held companies.

The CMDF is a venture capital mutual fund designed to enable Canadians to profit from the commercialization of medical research in Canada. It is the result of an effort led by the Medical Research Council of Canada, the objective of which was to ensure that Canadian discoveries would begin to be commercialized in Canada.

The fund seeks out promising early-stage companies with unique products or services that offer competitive advantage. A typical investment will range from C$1 million to C$15 million, made at staged intervals as the company achieves key technical and regulatory milestones. To date, CMDF's investment portfolio is more than $150 million in 38 life science companies.

Also at the conference, the winner of the Friesen-Rygiel Award was announced. This prize, given annually, recognizes the most outstanding human health discovery generated in a Canadian academic institution that has led to the creation of a commercial enterprise.

The first recipient is DiagnoCure Inc., a Quebec biopharmaceutical company specializing in technologies to diagnose and treat genitourinary and breast cancers. A C$10,000 grant will be shared by scientists responsible for the discoveries, Yves Fradet, cofounder of DiagnoCure and vice president of research and development, and Rene Gaudreault, a project leader at the company.

Less than a year after going public in 1996, DiagnoCure launched its first product, ImmunoCyt, a noninvasive diagnostic kit designed for the detection of superficial bladder cancer.

Diagnostic Detects Cancer Cells In Urine

ImmunoCyt detects antigens expressed by superficial bladder cancer cells in the urine. The procedure employs monoclonal antibodies that have been coupled with a fluorescent dye. Even if very small numbers of diseased cells are present in the urine sample, they will appear as brightly colored cells on a black background when using a fluorescence microscope.

Serge Pitre, DiagnoCure's president and CEO, said ImmunoCyt is different from the usual techniques due to its high degree of sensitivity. It can identify the presence of a superficial tumor before it even becomes visible in a cystoscopy. The company currently is developing a second generation of ImmunoCyt that will make it possible to diagnose both superficial and invasive tumors.

DiagnoCure also plans to develop an automated version of this test. *