2007 Winner: Innovation In Agricultural Science Sponsored By Dow AgroSciences Canada Inc.
To call Dr. Maurice Moloney a gypsy would be a bit of a stretch. After all, he’s been in Calgary for 20 years. Then again, the native of Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, Republic of Ireland, grew up in Liverpool, attending the Jesuit-run Preston Catholic College before moving to London to study biochemistry under three Nobel Laureates at Imperial College. Then he was off to Leicester for a PhD in Plant Biochemistry before heading to the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) for his post-doctoral fellowship. He’d have stayed there as an academic, too, except…well…he didn’t. Instead, while in California visiting a friend who worked for Calgene, he was asked to give a talk about his post-doc research and the CEO offered him a job on the spot. Intrigued, he accepted and over the next five years he was instrumental in developing the first transgenic canola, which now represents 85% of the grain’s worldwide crop.
In 1987, Maurice, by now interested in conducting research and commercialising his own work, came to Alberta to join the University of Calgary’s Department of Biological Sciences. Two years later, with the help of grant money from the Alberta Agriculture Research Institute and NSERC, he began work that would lead to the patents which allowed him to approach the U of C technology transfer office about spinning off his own company. SemBioSys was founded in 1994 and actually was a beneficiary of the tight fiscal climate under which universities were operating in the mid-90s. His department had been significantly reduced, allowing SemBioSys to use university lab space and human resource and administrative support. In fact, during the first four years all the company’s fundamental technological development took place at U of C and by 1998 the fledgling firm was ready to build a pilot plant. With the addition of long-time Calgene friend, Andrew Baum, as President and CEO, SemBioSys raised significant venture capital money—a total of $62M over the years—and began evolving into the internationally competitive entity it is today.
Dr. Moloney, as founder and chief scientific officer, is justifiably proud of the SemBioSys brand. The company’s proprietary—and quite extraordinary—transgenic and non-transgenic technologies are leading to the development of a range of biotherapeutic products, notably cost-effective insulin derived from safflower seeds. The SemBioSys insulin can be produced in a facility whose capital costs are 70% lower than those of a conventional insulin manufacturer. To assess the impact of such a breakthrough, one need only consider the following information on diabetes provided by the World Health Organisation:
Diabetes causes about 5% of all deaths globally each year.
80% of people with diabetes live in low- and middle-income countries.
In 2000, 171 million people worldwide had diabetes; that number is expected to top 366 million by 2030.
Diabetes deaths are likely to increase by more than 50% in the next 10 years without urgent action.
SemBioSys expects to be able to supply a large chunk of the global market when its insulin is ready for commercialisation some time in the next couple of years. Lest we think the impact of the safflower-derived insulin will be felt only in the developing world, we should remember the WHO expects the incidence of diabetes to skyrocket in North America and Europe over the next 20 years. Successful treatment of this chronic disease requires daily injections, self-administered in most cases. We all hate needles. But alternative, pulmonary and oral delivery systems are less precise, meaning they require more insulin to be as effective as injections. All of this means we’ll need considerably more insulin than is currently available and an every-increasing demand on a healthcare system that is already stretched thin. An affordable, easily-accessible source of insulin will have a massive impact on costs and outcomes. And that will benefit us all.
But SemBioSys is not stopping there. In addition to a range of non-pharmaceutical products, they’ve also developed safflower-derived Apo AI, a cardiovascular therapy that reduces and stabilizes plaque associated with heart attacks, angina, and stroke. A recent clinical study showed positive results from the use of an Apo AI variant but also indicated a very high dosage to be required for effective treatment. Again, the SemBioSys team believes itself capable of inexpensively producing large quantities of the biotherapeutic product.
All in all, the future seems a bit friendlier with Dr. Moloney and his colleagues working on our behalf. Their results, like those of other past and present ASTech Award Finalists, are putting Alberta on the map in yet another area of technological and scientific innovation. So what’s the best way to thank Maurice for his efforts? Dinner at a posh restaurant, maybe? Tickets to the theatre? Not really. It’s not that he wouldn’t accept and enjoy those gifts. It’s just that he’s more into the Beatles, the Doors, and Pink Floyd. Since being part of a group called the Spitfires as an 11-year-old, he’s been in many bands, playing guitar and harmonica and singing rock and blues. Some of the groups he’s been part of have had names such as Brave Ulysses and Left for Dead and he frequently plays at international tech-conferences. But top of the list is spending time with his kids, Sean, 19, and 15-year-old Heather. All in all, it’s a busy time for Dr. Moloney: happy he made the move to Calgary; and dedicated to a scientific field that will continue to impact us all for years to come.