By Patrick Boyle

With the addition of two new machines to the Department of Health Sciences, the University of Calgary will move one step closer to its goal of becoming a top-five Canadian research institution.

The first device is the Southern Alberta Microarray Facility. It allows genetics researchers to analyze huge amounts of genetic information at a very rapid rate. The device can imprint up to 20,000 genes on a single, standard-sized microscope slide. Researchers can then view a snapshot of the entire human genome, around 35,000 genes, on two slides. Researchers were previously able to examine between 10 and 20 genes at a time.

"These new facilities are part of a number of new initiatives in research technology," said Dr. Stephen Robbins, of the Faculty of Medicine Cancer Biology Research Group. "Because of the complexity of the equipment, this enhancement is probably the largest in terms of a dollar amount."

Dr. Robbins’ team explores genetic predispositions to a type of cancer called Wilm’s Tumour that mainly affects children. With the aid of the SAMF, the researchers can compare the chromosomal makeup of two individuals, one who recovered from the disease and one who did not. The goal of this analysis is to determine what genetic differences exist between high and low recovery patients.

"Due to the sources of funding for the project, our initial mandate will be focused primarily on cancer research," said Dr. Mayi Arcellana-Panlilio, the facility’s manager. "In the years to come, however, we plan on using the equipment for a variety of other applications."

The strength of the SAMF is the ability to single out problematic and productive genes. This is critical information, but to develop therapeutic treatments researchers must be able to gather information about the gene’s chemical structure. This is where the second new facility comes in handy.

The Southern Alberta Mass Spectrometry Centre enables researchers to pinpoint the precise mass of each peptide building block in any given protein. Finding differences between two genomes is precise and exposes subtle differences that would otherwise go unnoticed. It also allows researchers to perform a thorough comparison of two genes at a level of detail previously impossible.

"This puts the U of C in a small class of research facilities that are able to analyze huge amounts of genomic data very quickly," said Dr. Arcellana-Panlilio. "Since the sequencing of the human genome, the Canadian government embarked on a project to define the functionality of various genes. This technology, among other things, will allow us to participate in this project as a leader in the Prairie region."

Both facilities were made possible by a $1.8 million gift to the Alberta Cancer Foundation from the Medical Research Fund of The Calgary Foundation. The facilities are also supported by the Alberta Network of Proteomics Innovation and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research.

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