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Northern Exposure


By the time Marco Marra was finishing his PhD in Vancouver, he “had become intrigued — or maybe consumed — with the notion that genomics was revolutionary and important,” he recalls. Going into genomics for his postdoc work seemed natural.

The problem? Canada didn’t fund genomics until February of 2000. “That’s one of the reasons Canadians who’ve been interested in genomics had to leave,” Marra says. “The best and the brightest were elsewhere.”

Marra, who was fascinated by the whole-genome nematode sequencing work by John Sulston and Bob Waterston, headed for St. Louis to join Waterston’s team at Washington University. “I’m happy to say that they thought I wouldn’t be too disruptive,” he laughs.

Marra stayed for five years, becoming a group leader for mapping and for the EST program as well as a non-tenure-track faculty member.

At the 1997 Cold Spring Harbor meeting, Michael Smith approached Marra under the auspices of the British Columbia Cancer Agency and asked whether he thought Canada had a future in genomics. It wasn’t a bad question.

“It is to a degree embarrassing to have to admit that Canada really dropped the ball when it came to genomics and has only in the last few years been getting its act together,” says John van der Meer of the Institute for Marine Biosciences in Nova Scotia. Canada would have to be careful not to duplicate efforts of other, more advanced centers and still find some meaningful contribution to call its own.

After two years of backing and forthing with ideas, Smith convinced Marra that the opportunity to start the BC Cancer Agency Genome Sequence Centre was worthwhile. The location (third floor of the Vancouver cancer clinic) was especially appealing to Marra. “It promised a kind of interaction focused on cancer that I hadn’t experienced before,” he says.

He made the move from St. Louis to Vancouver in 1999 and is now co-director of the Genome Sequence Centre, which receives funding from the BC Cancer Foundation, other Canadian granting bodies, NIH, and USDA.

Marra’s story is becoming typical. People who left Canada to pursue genomics are steadily returning as the country establishes more of a presence in the field. Genome Canada furthered this by lobbying for a first funding initiative of C$160 million. The money will fuel genomics research in five different regional centers for five years, Marra says. These centers are currently being developed in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, the prairies, and British Columbia.

Despite the late start, Marra contends that Canada isn’t just “catching up” with the world — no one’s doing things that have already been done, he says, thanks in part to close collaborations with researchers in the US and the UK. Canadian researchers are busy with problems that are more important in their country than elsewhere, such as forestry and fishery projects. The recently announced additional C$140 million from Canada has made the future even brighter.

And others point out that amid the genomics fanfare, Canada has carved itself a niche in the next wave: proteomics. According to Brad Thatcher, another native Canadian who recently returned from the US to head up proteomics at SYN X Pharma, the country didn’t get heavily involved in genomics “strictly because there was already too much money in the pot and any addition would have been minor.” He adds, “What they did do is keep a solid level of funding for proteomics labs. … If people start striking quickly, Canada could become a real power in this field.”

— Meredith Salisbury

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