Name: Nathan Yoganathan
Title: Senior Advisor, Med BioGene
Background: Yoganathan co-founded Med BioGene in 2002 and served as its CEO until 2006, when he shifted into a senior advisory role. He holds a BSc from the University of North London; an MSc from the University of Sussex, UK; and a PhD from the University of Oslo in Norway.
VANCOUVER, BC — In a sign of how the DNA chip market has evolved in recent years, the Fourth Annual World Microarray Congress, held here last weekend, showcased research projects that used tools other than microarrays, including mass spectrometers and second-generation DNA sequencers.
According to Nathan Yoganathan, a co-founder of Vancouver-based biotech Med BioGene and an initiator and organizer of the meeting, the tools environment has changed considerably since the first of these conferences was held in 2005.
Yoganathan said that next year’s meeting could take place as part of a wider ranging Global Biomarker Conference that will focus more on molecular diagnostics than particular technologies.
BioArray News spoke with Yoganathan shortly after the conference. Below is an edited transcript of that interview.
Why did you start holding the World Microarray Congress?
I found that not many people were aware of the technology [that is] available. Industry was developing the technology and so on; you had the academics and also the biotechs using it, but they never sort of came together to understand how the technology was evolving in the world. So I thought this was an opportunity for bringing the world microarray developers and academics and biotechs and pharmas to one room to learn about the technology available and to improve on that.
How have things changed in the microarray space since 2005?
The microarray was a very novel commodity a few years ago. Now, it is becoming a standard tool, and also it is moving into an area where it has become simplified, and there are many platforms and multiple players. This evolution of the microarray has allowed users to identify unique biomarkers. That in turn creates other opportunities for identifying biomarkers, so microarrays have provided some important biomedical findings, so, in a way, this tool has done part of its job, and now we are going forward with diagnostics programs.
There seems to be a lot of activity here in Vancouver, including the company with which you are affiliated. Why is this?
You know, Vancouver has always been a hotbed for bio in Canada. And so, obviously, there are a lot of pharma companies here and they use gene-expression technology as a tool for drug discovery and validation. When this technology significantly advanced in this space and scientists found out that it is a tool that you can rapidly use to identify biomarkers, they also found out that it was going to revolutionize the whole way of doing pathological analysis.
Universities in the province including [the University of British Columbia, as well as research institutes and government programs such as] Genome BC and Genome Canada act as catalysts in the commercialization of this kind of technology, and there was also a focus from the federal government as well as the provincial government on commercialization of this technology. Because we as a nation are spending a lot of money on R&D, there has been a growing emphasis over time on finding a commercialization route. People in the life sciences field felt that if we went for diagnostics, it would be a faster route of producing revenue than going through some pharma route.
In terms of state support, especially Genome BC, are you satisfied with these initiatives?
Yes, they are acting as a catalyst. They have multiple interests. One is to promote science and technology in the provinces. Another is the commercialization aspects of the projects. There is also the education of the next generation of scientists who can continue the development of this technology in the provinces; in the country.
As far as the subject matter of this year’s World Microarray Congress, researchers presented mass spec and sequencing data. Why did you decide to change the content of the conference?
It was the World Microarray Congress when we started, so basically most of the technology was DNA-based technology. Now people are using protein arrays, and there is a lot of emphasis on moving towards proteomics. They were interested in coming to this conference, and said that their projects were close but not identical. But they were quite happy to come and participate in this conference where there was a little bit of an overlap between genomics and proteomics, but they are emphasizing that if we could call it a biomarker conference, it would be more appropriate and that could bring more people into this conference.
So, next year we are going to focus on a global biomarker conference. Microarrays will be a component of that conference, but it won’t be exclusively microarrays. It will be proteomics, it will be bioinformatics, and validation and use of biomarkers in proteomics. [We] will cover all those sections in the next conference.
Do you see those technologies as replacement technologies or complementary technologies?
Personally, I feel that at some point in time, all of these classical pathological techniques are going to be replaced by a new genomic or proteomic technology. Microscopic technology is going to be replaced by this new genomics and proteomics tool. There are a few examples in the market of platforms that have been approved by the FDA. I am very confident and I foresee in the near future that there will be a genomic-based and proteomic-based refined diagnostic tool available for human disease.
In conjunction with that, there will be personalized medicine, and people are going to use this biomarker discovery technology to prescribe proper drug regimens for patients. This is already underway in some ways, but I think going forward it is going to revolutionize how we are going to treat patients in the future using biomarker information.
Is there enough support and resources for getting there?
I think there are so many stakeholders in this initiative. One is the government, which has a responsibility, and also pharma has a responsibility. If a pharmaceutical company can figure out that certain populations with certain diseases are not going to respond to a certain drug, it is better off that they do not use this drug on those patients and in the long run it may even be counterproductive.
From the US or Canadian government’s perspective, if we can use a safe drug on a population, that is also our responsibility as a government. I also see that the research community has become well aware of this technology and they will support these endeavors. Agencies like the US Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada are also learning and they will be adopting this technology going forward. I think all of these stakeholders will benefit from this new revolution.
Can you tell me a bit more about your plans for next year’s World Microarray Congress?
I think next year we would like to have the conference in conjunction with the global biomarker conference so that we can expand the field of interest, whether it is cancer or whether it is neurology, or whether it is cardiovascular. We would like to bring all of those disciplines together and plus we will be bringing people who are investigating biomarkers with microarrays as well as next-generation sequencing technology and other technologies all into next year’s global biomarker conference.
We anticipate holding the event on March 19 and 20 here in Vancouver.