For Quebec City chemist Normand Voyer, the Canadian North isn’t just a beautiful landscape, it is full of potentially life-saving organisms just waiting to be studied at a molecular level.
“All this molecular treasure is hiding in these plants and different organisms,” he said.
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In fact, less than three per cent of northern plants and animals have been studied. Discoveries are a challenge — that’s why Voyer, a Laval University chemistry professor, was surprised and excited when a team from the University of Prince Edward Island came across an organism native to Iqaluit.
It’s a microscopic fungus with natural chemical properties which “share similar feature in terms of structure to known substances that have anti-malarial activity,” Voyer explained.
Voyer’s group believes this northern fungus can help treat malaria — a tropical disease which infects more than 200 million people every year and is responsible for close to half a million deaths.
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“It’s like influenza times 5,000,” said Dave Richard, a malaria expert and a microbiologist at the Centre hospitalier de l’Université Laval (CHUL) in Quebec City, Richard’s hometown.
“Tropical diseases, they’re obviously affecting people who have barely any money to feed themselves. So in order to have the infrastructure in order to perform that kind of high-level research, it has to be done in developed countries,” Richard explained.
“You have a tropical disease, you have a molecule from the Great White North, and you put them together, and you have something that works. That’s fantastic,” Richard said.
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Richard said this latest finding could prove to be a major breakthrough — and one that cannot come soon enough.
“What we see now is there is resistance through all available anti-malaria drugs so we definitely need to find new drugs,” he said.
It could still take years before a potential drug hits the market.