by Christine Roulston
Poulis studies how compounds secreted from conifers can benefit human health.
British Columbians have always had an intricate relationship with their conifer forests both recreationally and economically, but according to UVic research scientist Dr. Brett Poulis, the relationship may become even more intertwined.
Poulis’s research shows that conifers secrete beneficial compounds that could provide a powerful antidote against human illness.
His work on the subject has earned him the 2006 Young Innovator Award from the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE), a federal organization aimed at turning Canadian research and entrepreneurial talent into economic and social benefits for Canadians. In December, Poulis attended a ceremony in Ottawa to accept the award from Canada’s Minister of Industry, Maxime Bernier.
“These trees are ancient and they have a defensive system that has worked for them for hundreds of millions of years. I believed there were compounds present in these trees that would not only help defend plants and crops, but humans as well,” says Poulis, who completed his PhD at UVic in 2004.
Early on during his research, Poulis sensed that some commercial applications may emerge from his work. His hunch came true last February when his research inspired the start-up of a biotechnology company developing innovative medical and cosmetic products.
“My research has always been guided by product-driven discovery and I’ve really enjoyed transferring my research from the lab into a commercial setting,” he says.
The Okanagan, BC, native has had a lifelong interest in forestry, working as a forest firefighter during the summer breaks to support himself through university.
His PhD studies in proteomics focused on conifer ovular secretions. During pollination, plants are extremely susceptible to pathogen attack. Whether the pollen is being delivered by insects, animals, or simply the wind, it arrives at the female cones along with an assortment of bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
To combat these potentially devastating invaders, plants have evolved a unique set of defensive systems. In flowering plants, the nectar produced to attract pollinators contains proteins that produce defensive conditions.
But until Poulis began to delve into this new area of research, it was unknown how conifers protected themselves during these important reproductive events. He discovered that conifers use an array of defensive compounds with antibacterial and antifungal properties. As he purified, identified, and characterized the various compounds, the commercial potential became increasingly clear.
“This was completely novel research,” says UVic biologist Dr. Patrick von Aderkas. “Brett certainly deserves this award, as he is single-handedly responsible for taking the research and developing it for the benefit of others.”
Von Aderkas is Poulis’ past academic advisor and now business partner in the company FloraPure BioSciences Inc. The company’s research to date has focused on developing methods to produce and purify these defensive compounds and incorporate them into cosmetic and medicinal applications such as skin-based therapies and unique and cost-effective antibiotics.