When an outbreak of a particularly
dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria occurred in Calgary in 1990, Dr. Glen Armstrong, Associate Professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Alberta, saw an opportunity to put his training and expertise to work. His understanding of bacteria and host-cell interaction led to the development of a patentable treatment for this illness, also known as the "hamburger disease."
Ten years of research and development laterin collaboration with several colleagues and co-inventor Dr. Louis D. Heerzehe was able to put his drug to use in the real world during the Walkerton, Ontario E. coli outbreak, a crisis that killed seven people in May, 2000. Dr. Armstrongs treatment was offered to some of those who had been in contact with tainted drinking water in an effort to prevent some of the serious reactions the bacteria could produce.
E. coli naturally occurs in the human intestinal tract; it helps break down food to produce vitamins, and is thought to prevent harmful bacteria from attacking the digestive system. E.coli 0157 is a similar strain of the bacteria that lives in the intestines of cattle. Humans can accidentally digest it when drinking water that is not properly treated, or
by eating tainted hamburger meat. This "rogue" bacteria releases a toxin that if absorbed into the circulatory system can cause bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and in severe cases kidney failure and death.
Dr. Armstrongs drug, called Synsorb, is actually hundreds of tiny grains of sand, coated in a surgery substance designed to mimic a carbohydrate in the human body. These grains act like "molecular sponges," soaking up the harmful toxins before they have a chance to cause their damage. The drug is then passed through the digestive system naturally, flushing out harmful pathogens along the way.
Although the patent has not yet been issued as of 2003 , Dr. Armstrongs invention is in phase three clinical trials in humans. A University of Alberta spin-off company was created to develop and market the drug; Synsorb Biotech Inc. of Calgary is now traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Dr. Armstong is continuing his research at the University, focusing on the how pathogens use host-cell receptors to infect healthy organisms. This study could result in the development of vaccines and therapies that would target harmful bacteria. Dr. Armstrong is a coordinator for the Edmonton node of the Canadian Bacterial Disease Network, a chair member of the University of Alberta Biosafety Committee and a chair member of the Canadian Society of Microbiologists.
Much of the information on this page is from "Patent Portraits, A Celebration of Inventions and Patents from the University of Alberta," published in 1996 by the Office of the Vice-President (Research and External Affairs) in collaboration with the Industry Liaison Office, now known as the Research Services Office.
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