Barry Glickman

Barry Glickman
Department of Biology

Research areas: molecular genetics, toxicology, environmental mutagenesis, avian ecology, biotechnology and health, nano and bioethics

CBR founder is an expert on bioethics and risks

To say that Dr. Barry Glickman has an inexhaustible curiosity about nearly everything would be an understatement. After all, this is a researcher who has gone from studying DNA mutation and repair at the molecular level, to retracing the voyage of Charles Darwin in a sailboat (writing a book in the process, Patagonia Through the Eyes of Darwin), to studying the role of sea bird feces in B.C. forest ecology.

Glickman founded UVic's Centre for Environmental Research in 1994, which later became the Centre for Biomedical Research. Most early members of the centre were geneticists with ties to medical research, but right away, Glickman encouraged an interdisciplinary approach. One early member was a medical anthropologist; another, an ethnobotanist.

At that time, Glickman was studying DNA mutation and repair: he wanted to know what environmental conditions damaged DNA, and what conditions prevented or ameliorated damage from known mutagens. His scope was broad, and with help from a large lab of trainees and technicians, he wrote dozens of papers on the topic, becoming a world renowned expert in this field.

These days, Glickman is delving into biotechnology risk assessment and ethics. He belongs to several government committees with Health Canada and the Canadian Space Agency, and he writes risk assessment papers and policy guides. The topics he covers are broad: nanotechnology, potential terrorist targets and the rising costs of biotechnology in health care, just to name a few.

Sorting through the hype of nanotechnology

Flip through any popular science magazine and you are sure to be bombarded with the latest and greatest in nanotechnology—like ultra-repellent surfaces made from nano-silicon spikes; or nano-wire paper that soaks up oil, but not water. It gets weirder and less probable when the magazines look to the future, like self-assembling nano cars and trucks (with carbon buckey balls for wheels and heat-powered drive shafts) that supposedly one day will build entire buildings from the atom up. Dr. Barry Glickman is helping both Health Canada and the Canadian Space Agency sort through the hype to distinguish the real potentials—and threats—of nanotechnology for health care.

According to Glickman, one of the most realistic near future applications of nanotechnology in health care is the development of "sentinel molecules," which could be used in vivo to monitor and even treat disease. In effect, he is talking about synthetic improvements to the immune system, which would complement the natural immune system. This sort of thing interests the Canadian Space Agency, which wishes to know as soon as possible if one of its astronauts in space is about to fall ill. (Just consider the consequences of a flu making the rounds of a space shuttle). One idea is to predict a fever before it happens—through a sentinel molecule that detects biochemical changes in the body that precede a fever by several hours.

Back on Earth, Health Canada would also like such a molecule to help them catch diseases in people in remote communities. In another example, scientists are developing sentinel molecules to patrol for cancer.

On the flip side of these potential benefits is the still unknown nature of nanoparticles, making potential problems hard to predict. The fascination and power behind nano-chemistry is that when you reduce the amount of a material to the molecular scale, its properties change. For instance, some inert materials become catalysts. As one letter in Nature Nanotechnology warned (Trophic transfer of nanoparticles in a simplified invertebrate food web, June 2008), the unique chemical and physical properties of nanomaterials that make them so attractive, also contribute to their unexpected behaviour in the environment and biological systems.

Glickman is taking an environmental outlook and asking the question: how will these new materials react in nature? Will they be toxic? Will they persist? How would you break them down? These questions become even more important if the nanoparticles are built to self-assemble. Glickman hopes to help the Canadian government prevent health or ecological problems arising from nanotechnolgy.