From canola to cancer: Partnership aims to make Manitoba a hub for genetic technology

A new initiative is hoping to make Manitoba a hub for genetic research and development by putting technology in the hands of students, farmers, and health practitioners.

Genome 360 hopes to put genetic sequencing technology in the hands of students, farmers, health workers

A new partnership gives Red River College access to next generation DNA sequencing equipment. It allows for improved DNA mapping and could open up new opportunities in fields like medicine or agriculture. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

A new initiative aims to make Manitoba a hub for genetic research and development by putting technology in the hands of students, farmers and health practitioners.

And it centres around portable equipment that could bring DNA mapping technology to Manitoba farms, or help find new patient-specific medical treatments.

Genome Prairie, a not-for-profit group that works to develop the field of genetic mapping, or genomics, calls the plan Genome 360. It's partnered with Winnipeg's Red River College and several local industries on the project.

Its aim is "to bring the power of genomics into the hands of the general populace, so that you can utilize your own DNA information for your own benefit," said Genome Prairie chief scientific officer Simon Potter.

"Any organism that has DNA is fair game for us. We can look at plant species, we can look at pathogens with the National Microbiology Lab, or I can take a cheek swab from you and tell you what your DNA is telling me."

Genome Prairie chief scientific officer Simon Potter says the new technology at RRC is 'about as user-friendly as [the] equipment gets.' (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Genome 360 is funded through federal grants dedicated to advancing genetic research, as well as industry groups. The project will devote $2.3 million for equipment and training in Manitoba.

Through the partnership, Red River College will be among the first educational facilities in Western Canada to have a next generation sequencing, or NGS, device — equipment that allows for improved DNA mapping and could open up new opportunities in medicine.

"NGS is going to be the future of diagnosis in oncology, in rare disease, research and testing," said Ali Sorku, an account manager with Illumina, the company that makes the technology.

Genetic mapping, he said, could one day be used to diagnose patients and create specific treatments unique to their genetic make-up.

"Now the students … are going to have access and familiarity [with the equipment] when they graduate," he said.

Red River College president Paul Vogt said it's important to have the technology available to students, because genetic mapping will be widely used in the near future. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The DNA sequencing machine will allow students to learn the technology and, because it's mobile, use it anywhere —whether it be in clinics, farms, remote communities or labs.

"It's about the size of a bread box, and it means it can go out into the field and be used in clinical practice much more widely," said Red River College president Paul Vogt.

"Having it here at the college is a great way to train our students on it, so when they graduate they can be the practitioners of that technology."

Taking the lab to the canola field

The Manitoba Canola Growers Association will also be using the technology for its Pest Surveillance Initiative, which tracks pests that impact farming.

Genome 360 helped create a mobile DNA lab, which can be taken directly to farms to harvest and test samples.

"Without knowing what is in the environment and monitoring how it may be changing, we can't be sure we are making the most economic decisions," said Pam Bailey, a canola farmer who also works with the pest initiative.

The vehicle that houses the portable lab allows genetic sequencing technology to be taken directly to places like farms where it can be used in the field. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The mobile lab makes that easier, said Genome Prairie's Potter.

"Instead of having to take samples in the field, bring them back into the lab and do [testing] there, and then take the information back to the farmers, you'll actually be able to take the lab to the farmer," he said.

The hope is that by studying the genetic makeup of canola, as well as the DNA of weeds and insects in the environment, farmers can develop new products and techniques for fighting pests and weeds.

Small, portable, and easy to use

The $29,000 genetic sequencer, called the iSeq100, uses the same technology as home DNA kits, Potter said, calling it the Keurig of the DNA world.

"It's about as user-friendly as [the] equipment gets," he said.

"It's really bringing the power of genomics to the people, making people understand that this is nothing to be afraid of, and to embrace the information that genomics can provide."

The iSeq100 System, a portable genetic sequencing machine, will now be used by students at Red River College. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The college hopes to have students using the device by summer.

"If you fast forward five, 10 years, there will be hundreds of these in use in the province," said Vogt.

"The important thing, of course, is as we introduce the technology, we have to train people to use it."


  • An earlier version of this story said that Red River College will become the first educational facility in Western Canada to have a next generation sequencing, or NGS, device. In fact, the college is among the first in Western Canada to have the technology.
    Mar 26, 2019 2:41 PM CT


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