Researchers form Nano Bond
If two heads are better than one, three heads will no doubt be revolutionary. That is what University of Alberta professors Carlo MontemagnoThomas Thundat and Gane Wong are aiming for.

Montemagno leads the Ingenuity Lab and holds a Canada Research Chair (in Intelligent Nanosystems), Thundat is the University of Alberta’s only Canada Excellence Research Chair (in Oil Sands Molecular Engineering) and Wong holds an AITF Strategic Chair (in Biosystems Informatics); this talented trio is teaming up on groundbreaking research projects and are confident their collaborative approach will provide benefits for Albertans and populations abroad. They also know there won’t be a shortage of opportunities to test their skills.

“It’s becoming quite clear that global and local prospects for humanity are very much tied to society’s ability to effectively address existing and emerging environmental, technical and medical challenges,” says Ingenuity Lab Director, Carlo Montemagno, PhD, who is also a Professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta, AITF Strategic Chair of Bionanotechnology, Canada Research Chair in Intelligent Nanosystems and Program Lead of Biomaterials at the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT).

“Be it water scarcity, climate change, infectious diseases or responsible resource use, the necessary solutions are as multifaceted as the problems themselves. To be successful, we require a unique combination of expertise and creativity as well as a collective commitment to leave conventional thinking behind. And that’s precisely what Ingenuity Lab offers.”

At the helm of Ingenuity Lab, Montemagno is setting the direction for a team of world-class researchers and forging mutually beneficial partnerships with industry leaders and fellow academics like Thundat and Wong, who share an appreciation for the role of emergent and novel technologies in mining, energy, agriculture and health sectors.

“The purpose of this accelerator initiative is to provide Alberta with a unique advantage by bringing the right people together at the right time,” explains Thundat. “By working collaboratively, we not only leverage our unique knowledge and expertise, we significantly boost our ability to develop tangible solutions to some of mankind’s most complex challenges.”

For Wong, one of those challenges is the metastasis of breast and prostate cancer. The professor, who specializes in genomics and bioinformatics, joined the University of Alberta in 2007 and is best known for starting the largest DNA sequencing organization in the world, is hopeful his single cell genomics research will provide the necessary clues for innovative treatment and drug alternatives.

“What we know is that in cancer patients, the primary site is not often the cause of mortality.  People die because the cancer spreads,” explains Wong. “If it were to be localized, we could surgically remove it and that would be that. But unfortunately, that is not the case.”

A better understanding of cancer metastasis is crucial to treating and eradicating the disease.  According to the mathematics and computing specialist, the basic issue has to do with heterogeneity, or rather the fact that tumours contain cells that are genetically different. “The key here is to move away from sequencing the average of all these cells. We have to actually identify the genetics of individual cells and determine the unique characteristics of those that break off and travel through the body.”

Up until a year ago, single cell experiments were not considered possible. But with advances in micro fabrication, this type of research is becoming much more viable and that’s where Montemagno and Thundat fit in.

Wong is optimistic that his two new partners, who have a wealth of engineering expertise between them and equally impressive track records, will be able to develop new and improved tools and techniques that will help him meet his lofty research goals.  And in the process, he hopes to reduce the gap between research and development, and end user application.

“It’s about putting cutting-edge technology in the hands of those who can make a profound difference,” he says. “I see myself as the link between the bright minds who create the tools and those who put them to the test day after day. Working together gives us the opportunity to engineer and equip industries with next generation tools and resources that will far surpass those currently available.”

Like Wong and Montemagno, Thundat is also eager to have a positive impact in Alberta and beyond. His specialty is novel physical, chemical and biological detection using micro- and nano- mechanical sensors and his research programs have focused on the study of molecules and nanostructures at interfaces and the development of revolutionary instrumentation.

One of the many research projects Thundat and his team have been working on is the development of sensors that can operate without attached batteries. Whether it is in the oil patch or in the operating room, these advances will help to reduce the size of technological devices and enable crucial information to be conveyed wirelessly. “We are looking at things like batteries that use the body as a conduit, and can be worn like wristwatches,” he explains. “This work will pave the way for new biosensors and implanted devices that will offer greater accuracy and be much less invasive. They will change medicine forever.”

The engineering professor’s passion for discovery also extends to Alberta’s signature natural resources. He has served as Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Oil Sands Molecular Engineering since 2010 and has extensive experience in the field. “These days, nanoscale phenomenon controls every aspect of our oil and gas industry,” he says.  “Our focus is on the development of new detection and extraction technologies that will impact water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Ultimately, we hope to improve the overall efficiency and reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.”

Thundat and his team of 35 will work collaboratively with Ingenuity Lab and Wong and his associates on a number of projects. It is envisioned that these enhanced connections will help to facilitate deeper learning, spark critical thinking and break down the barriers that exist between disciplines. And at Ingenuity Lab, Montemagno and the team are eager to get started.

“We firmly believe that the path to discovery lies beyond the siloed approaches that have hampered our progress thus far,” says Montemagno. “By acknowledging the interconnectedness of our systems and facilitating better research integration and the cross pollination of ideas, we give ourselves, and society as a whole, much better odds of success.”

Launched in November 2013, Ingenuity Lab is Alberta’s first and only nanotechnology accelerator. The Government of Alberta funded initiative is integral to Alberta Innovates Technology Future’s overarching plan to mobilize knowledge creation, expand research capacity and develop new commercial applications that will build on the province’s economic strengths.