Harvesting Hope from the Sea | by Margaret Magner on Sunday 16th of December 2012

Special to The Guardian

Russell Kerr is passionate about the Canadian Arctic.

When he relocated from Florida Atlantic University to the University of Prince Edward Island, it was only natural his research would be associated with the warm waters of the Bahamas and Florida Keys.

But his appointment to UPEI's prestigious Canada Research Chair in Marine Natural Products expanded his focus to Newfoundland, the Bay of Fundy and Iqaluit, Nunavut.

He soon launched Nautilus Biosciences Canada Inc. to develop marine natural products for human and animal health. Its discoveries have attracted $6 million in research funding, including an Atlantic Innovation Fund grant and a $400,000 award to Kerr through the P.E.I. Premier's Medal for Innovation.

The 2006 move to P.E.I. was not taken lightly. Kerr, born in Scotland, but now a Canadian citizen, was well respected in the field of biomedical and marine biotechnology in the U.S. and acclimatized to "bustling American urban life" in the thriving Florida bioscience industry.

"The scale was immense, but there was no sense of community," says Kerr. "There was little incentive to work together, and the competition was overt."

Interviewing at UPEI, he was impressed by local support for developing companies and UPEI's world-class infrastructure for natural products research. What’s more, the Island’s vital Scottish community made him realize he'd "found a little piece of Scotland in P.E.I." With a young family to raise, he had the sense that P.E.I. might be the perfect place.

Kerr credits Rory Francis, executive director of P.E.I. BioAlliance, with motivating him to establish Nautilus Biosciences soon after he arrived.

"Rory literally knocked on my door, along with Don Ridley, and wanted to know how he could help me establish my company here. Working with them, I came to understand the benefit to being small," says Kerr.

"Where else can you arrange a meeting with key decision makers and funding agencies within a week and receive a favorable outcome? It happens here, which is why I intend to stay."

Don Ridley, now Nautilus vice president of business development, earlier made his own journey to P.E.I. after decades in the international pharmaceutical industry. As a BioAlliance mentor, he ensures start-up bioscience companies have a strategy to successfully commercialize their products "so they don’t have to make the mistakes I did."

For Nautilus, a key resource is its marine microbial library, based on samples collected in Colombia, Barbados, the Bahamas, Florida, Atlantic Canada and the Canadian Arctic. Pharmaceutical, neutraceutical, and personal-care products are being advanced from compounds originating from this sustainable source of bioactive products.

Personal-care products — including a patent for a natural anti-dandruff compound produced and marketed with U.K chemical giant Croda International — will leverage funds to grow other areas, including compounds with cancer-fighting properties. Nautilus brings an urgency to harvesting microbes from Arctic tundra and intertidal sediment.

"There's little marine biology prospecting and nothing in the Canadian Arctic. With climate change's significant effect and ice covers decreasing quickly, we have no idea what genetic diversity is being lost," says Kerr.

"We see what’s happening in the rainforest, but don't know what we're losing in Canada's Arctic. It’s important to collect samples as quickly as possible. The cure for cancer could be in microbes there."

Brad Haltli, a Nautilus lab manager with a UPEI academic appointment, collects Arctic microbes while colleagues harvest marine sediments on P.E.I. beaches and isolate bacteria from seaweed to advance new products. He witnesses the seamless collaboration between the UPEI and Nautilus labs.

"They share resources, and faculty and students are energized by the company's entrepreneurial perspective," says Haltli. "UPEI encourages faculty to develop start-ups and shares in licensing agreements. It’s a win for everyone."

Kerr continues to be optimistic about bioscience in P.E.I.

"It's exciting for students to see real-life applications in their research. And the growing bioscience sector ensures more jobs are created when they graduate."

He foresees new trends in pharmaceutical research with profound implications for human wellbeing.

"Natural products will be essential to human health. Genetic resources and biodiversity are disappearing, but we're doing something about it. What a tremendous opportunity to discover important therapeutics to impact lives."

One in a series of stories about the P.E.I. BioScience Cluster by Margaret Magner, Ph.D.