BC grants ignite two innovative projects

Science, Engineering

Biomedical engineer Stephanie Willerth. Photo: UVic Photo Services.

Two University of Victoria researchers working with industry to develop and apply new technologies have been awarded BC Innovation Council Ignite grants for their research on the protection of endangered species and the future of personalized medicine.

Molecular biologist Caren Helbing receives a $185,000 grant for her work with environmental consulting firm Hemmera Envirochem and environmental laboratory Maxxam Analytics to refine a method of detecting the presence of aquatic animal species through environmental DNA (eDNA).

The method will allow ecologists to determine the geographical range of threatened and endangered species by identifying the specific eDNA that every animal leaves behind in the waters and soil of its habitat.

Determining whether a species is at risk currently comes down to human observation, a costly and often destructive method of verifying a species’ presence. Helbing’s eDNA technology allows researchers to simply analyze a scoop of water or soil to determine whether a species is present in a particular habitat.

Funding from BC Ignite to refine eDNA methodology will allow for systematic, reliable and standardized testing methods, and the creation of the first commercially available eDNA test in BC.

Biomedical engineer Stephanie Willerth receives $139,700 for her work with Aspect Biosystems that uses 3-D printing technology to print human neural tissue. Willerth and Aspect have already been working together to re-engineer human skin cells into pluripotent stem cells, which have the capability of forming any cell type found in the body.

The new project will see the engineered tissue printed using Aspect’s specialized bio-ink formula, producing neural tissue that can be used to recreate the pathology of spinal cord injury and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

Willerth’s work also aims to create a human-cell platform for testing new drugs to treat such disorders, which holds significant promise for personalized medicine applications in the future. BC Ignite grants are awarded twice a year and are intended to cover a third of project costs. Successful recipients are then required to secure remaining funds from industry or other government sources.


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Keywords: biochemistry, microbiology, engineering, funding, research, biomedical

People: Stephanie Willerth, Caren Helbing

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