McMaster University opens state-of-the-art biosurfaces lab

The Biointerfaces Institute, a $22 million dollar unique facility, opens Friday at the university.

Clemence Sicard was attracted to Hamilton from her native Paris, France for the love of her research.

Sicard, a post-doctoral fellow in McMaster University's faculty of chemistry and chemical biology, focuses on bioactive papers. Her prototypes look just like regular pieces of paper, but printed on them is a bioink designed to change colour when they come in contact with an enzyme like E. Coli or a pesticide - a low cost way of testing for unwanted organisms here and in the developing world.

"I came here [for research], and then came this," she said, arms out to motion to her brand-new lab space.

Sicard is referring to McMaster's new Biointerfaces Institute, which officially opened Friday. The facility is the first of its kind in Canada.

The institute is designed state-of-the-art equipment and a space for scientists like Sicard looking to discover new man-made surfaces that interact with biology, said Fred Capretta, a principal investigator with the institute.

"So if you think about how that impacts every day life, it's about a contact lens that sits on an eye ball, an implantable device in a body or even something like a pregnancy test," he said.

What is unique about the lab is the speed at which research can happen.

"Traditionally, you'd take a biological sample and surface that you think might work, put them together and you study them. If that doesn't work, you throw the surface away, you get your next surface," Capretta said. "What we've decided to do in this lab is high throughput, and that means doing things many times, very quickly, hundred and thousands of samples at a time."

Amongst dozens of machines, there are two robots that Capretta calls "the heart" of the lab. They help test surfaces in parallel very quickly and tell researchers if it has the ingredients or the reaction you're looking for.

"This afternoon I'll be showing three samples of things that took four or five years to do, that we could do seriously in six to eight months," said Dr. Heather Sheardown, who is working on a contact lens that can stay in the eye for an extended period of time. "The students are all excited... we can play around with multiple parameters."

The facility costs a total of $22 million: 40 per cent of the cost - or just under nine million dollars - from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (funded by the federal government), 40 per cent from the Ontario government and the remaining 20 per cent from partnerships and the university. It took about three years to construct the lab and bring in the equipment.

"I always say to my colleagues that you cannot do world-class research without access to state-of-the-art equipment and you simply can't do the research that will attract world attention," said Gilles Patry, president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. "This is an investment we can be proud of."

While Sicard and her team have tested their bio-paper in the field, looking for organic phosphates in agricultural lands in Kenya and India, Capretta hopes there will be many more prototypes built from the chemists, physicists and engineers who have come nationally or internationally to work in the new lab.

"We like to think of as sharing a common coffee pot. Everyone is bumping into each other and some really great ideas get thrashed out," he said.