2017

Manning nominees make big impact

Local candidates for the $100,000 award have helped develop Ebola treatment, plant-growth enhancers

The stereotypical Canadian does not boast about achievements. That’s probably why the annual $100,000 Manning Innovation Award is not more well known than it should be.

It has been around since 1980 and Manitobans have won it a couple of times, including two years ago when Mark Torchia and Richard Tyc won for their joint development of the NeuroBlate System, and in 2010 by Werner Ens and Ken Standing for their work in the field of mass spectrometry.

Manning nominee Manas Banerjee, of XiteBio Technologies Inc., developed a new formulation of microbial inoculants to enhance plant growth and crop yields.

The award honours innovators who have developed and successfully marketed a new concept, process or procedure.

This year, there are two groups of Manitoba nominees for the $100,000 award: Gary Kobinger and Xiangguo Qiu for their work at the National Microbiology Lab on the development of a treatment for the Ebola virus, and Manas Banerjee, of XiteBio Technologies Inc., who developed a new formulation of microbial inoculants to enhance plant growth and crop yields.

This is the third time Kobinger and Qiu have been nominated. The timing of today’s announcement (Qiu and Banerjee were to be on hand at a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce event) is significant for Kobinger and Qiu because a brand-new outbreak of Ebola has just occurred.

The World Health Organization has confirmed three deaths earlier this week in a remote northeastern province of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In an interview at his office at Université Laval in Quebec City, where he is now based, Kobinger said it would be hard to find anyone at the Level Four lab at Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Lab who had not contributed to the Ebola research over the past 10 years.

The results of some of that work will quite likely come into play in the coming weeks in Congo. Kobinger said both the rVSV vaccine and ZMapp treatment — both of which include substantial contributions from Kobinger and Qiu’s team — could be crucial in the current outbreak.

The rVSV vaccine has been through clinical trials and the ZMapp has had significant positive results in a trial in 2016. There was compassionate use of both with good results in the massive outbreak in West Africa in 2014-15.

Intense collaborations with partners in Canada, the U.S. and various agencies worldwide contributed to generate a stockpile of ZMapp for international public health security.

"The bottom line is that ZMapp reached 92 per cent success (in the small clinical trial in 2016) and as of today with an ongoing outbreak the one treatment that is up there first on the line is ZMapp," he said.

Kobinger continues to conduct research into the ecology of the virus and how it circulates in the species that carry it.

"We still don’t understand why it appears in humans," he said. "We are always caught off guard."

He is indifferent to the commercial ramifications of the development of the treatment.

Some say because Ebola outbreaks are so rare and that those infected are, sadly, the poorest of the poor in the poorest countries, discovering treatments has not been a top priority for pharmaceutical companies.

That makes the work that Kobinger and Qiu’s team undertook even more noteworthy.

Kobinger said what may be even more substantial about their work is that it has provided the foundation for the recent explosion of monoclonal antibody therapies as a new way to look at treatments of all sort of infectious diseases. He said so much work is being done around the world that he can’t even keep up.

As for the Manning Award, he said. "It would be fantastic to win on the third try."

This is the first time Banerjee has been nominated for the award. But the Winnipeg scientist/entrepreneur is another classic example of dedicated scientific research done without being distracted by the demands of quarterly returns to shareholders.

In his case, Banerjee has been doing research in cell microbiology for about 25 years and has developed a sustainable business over the past six years with more than a dozen employees and a growing — and loyal — customer base across Canada and the U.S.

Banerjee works in the field of microbial inoculants and has competitors with names like Bayer, BASF and Dupont.

His innovative technology is called AGPT (Advanced Growth Promoting Technology). Whereas the product from the competition will try to supplant native soil microbes, XiteBio’s inoculants are designed to work with the microbes that are already there.

"We came up with a formulation, AGPT, that creates a synergy," he said. "The inherent natural reaction for the existing microbes is to kick out the newly introduced bacteria (that will promote plant growth). Our product is the opposite. Rather than fight against them, we work with them."

Banerjee is aware of the challenges and demands agricultural producers face and does not want to be part of an exercise that does not produce actual benefits for the farmers.

Even though he has had many offers from the larger agricultural nutrient companies to buy his company, he said he has no desire to sell.

"When you work in a private company like mine, you have to innovate, you have to think outside the box," he said.

"Sometimes it is not that easy. Sometimes you have to take the path which the other guys might not take."

Banerjee said he is gratified by the growing number of repeat customers who not only use his product each year but double their order.

For someone whose work is appreciated by many, but does not have the high profile of the more well-known brands, being up for a Manning Award is a big deal.

"It is definitely an honour," he said.