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Biotechnology partnership transforms safety in blood donation processing

At a glance
The team

Drs. Jacques Corbeil, François Laviolette, and Mario Marchand, assisted by postdoctoral fellow Frédéric Raymond and PhD students Mazid Osseni, Francis Brochu, and Pier-Luc Plante

The challenge

New illnesses such as Zika and West Nile virus challenge safety of blood donation  

The solution

Develop screening tools that combine conventional screening with advanced computing power

The outcome

A new “big data” screening method that is significantly faster than current methods

What's next

Develop a proof-of-concept prototype with applications in personalized medicine

In the early 1980s, the Canadian health care system was shaken by the tainted blood scandal. The problem saw thousands of Canadians infected with HIV and hepatitis C after receiving contaminated blood transfusions.

From there, new protocols for screening and handling blood products were enacted to prevent the spread of these diseases through blood donation programs.

Over 30 years later, infectious diseases such as Zika and West Nile virus pose new challenges for the safety of blood donation around the world; however, a partnership between a multidisciplinary team of researchers at Université Laval, Quebec-based Phytronix, and international biotechnology firm Waters Corporation could revolutionize screening technology for donated blood products.

Existing screening techniques can only test a small number of blood samples at a time, and results are usually available within hours. However, blood samples have a brief shelf life following donation, meaning every minute lost during sample screening affects the process.

The Laval teamThe new technology will pair Phytronix’s proprietary laser-based analysis technology and Waters’ mass spectrometer to screen thousands of samples in minutes. The ULaval research team will then apply machine learning algorithms to analyze the samples for potential contamination. The project builds on collaborative efforts between several fields: medical genomics, computer engineering, and advanced mathematics. Although the research is in its infancy, the resulting system could have the potential to vastly improve processing times for blood products on a global scale.

The collaboration also holds great potential for the partners. As a Quebec-based firm, Phytronix is scaling up its technology for global markets by tapping into Waters’ expertise and networks. At the same time, Waters is gaining new insights into machine learning, courtesy of the ULaval researchers.

The project came together through Mitacs’ Converge program — a new initiative designed to pair university researchers and small- and medium-sized enterprises in Canada with multinational corporations through R&D supply chains. Following an initial proof-of-concept between Université Laval and Phytronix, the Mitacs team was able to attract interest from Waters Corporation to combine the expertise of all three partners into the latest collaboration.

For Jacques Corbeil, principal investigator from ULaval, the project presents an exciting opportunity: “We have worked with both companies towards this mutually beneficial goal. Each partner is bringing a unique skill set to create something much bigger than we could on our own.

“It’s also important that this project is helping a small Canadian company — Phytronix — to build up their expertise into a new market. We are grateful that Mitacs Converge is able to support this type of collaboration so that together we can have an impact on business and research in Canada; and hopefully one day, have an impact around the world.”

 


Mitacs would like to thank Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Converge program.

Photo from left to right: Pier-Luc Plante, Mazid Osseni, François Laviolette, Jacques Corbeil, Mario Marchand, Francis Brochu, and Frédéric Raymond.