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Pharmacies selling DNA tests to help patients pick best medications

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When Donna Gutteridge heard her local Pharmasave in Stouffville, Ont., was selling DNA tests that claimed to help determine what medications work best for individual patients, she decided to give it a try.

“A lot of the medications, they don’t agree with me … whether it be extra-strength Tylenol, ibuprofen, some of the other pain medications,” said Gutteridge, who suffers from back and nerve pain. “Even my doctor is baffled.”

So for about $200, Gutteridge is giving a saliva sample, which will be sent off to a private lab in Australia run by a company called myDNA. It does pharmacogenomic testing — a relatively new field that analyzes how people’s genes affect their responses to certain drugs.

In about two weeks, she will return to the pharmacy and log into her myDNA account to go over the results, said Nayan Patel, a pharmacist and the owner of the Stouffville store.

Gutteridge hopes the test will provide some insight she can take back to her doctor — and some options for medications that will work for her.

There are currently about 150 drugs that can be tested for known genetic interactions, including pain medications, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal drugs, as well as antidepressants.

These over-the-counter (also called “direct-to-consumer”) genetic tests are increasingly appearing in Canadian pharmacies, and range in cost $200 to $300.

It’s a worthwhile investment for patients struggling to find medications that work for them, Patel said.  

Pharmacogenomics, a relatively new field, is the study of how genes affect someone’s response to drugs. (Vasiliy Koval/Shutterstock)

“Pharmacists have always known that everybody is not the same. We give medications to one person and it works great, and another person, it doesn’t work so well,” he said. “We all metabolize medications differently.

“We didn’t really know how we could tell whether a medication would work for a patient, but now this gives [us] a great tool.”

‘Not quite there yet’

But it’s a tool that isn’t yet regulated by Health Canada. And although pharmacogenomics is a respected science used in hospitals and other clinical settings, many experts aren’t convinced these tests are ready to be used by consumers. 

“I think this is one of those things where the science is way ahead of the actual real application,” said Mina Tadrous, a pharmacist and research associate at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

“We’re learning more about how genes interplay and how our body breaks down drugs, uses drugs or perhaps has reactions to drugs. And often this affects [us] if we have adverse events or if they’re actually working well for us,” Tadrous said.

“It’s really exciting to think about the potential here and there’s a lot of really great examples, especially within hospitals or people initiating new drugs where [genetic tests] have been useful,” he said.

“[But] where I think this falls behind a little bit is that the actual evidence of using this in a community, in a more general basis is not quite there yet.”

Using a DNA test to determine how a drug is absorbed and how much of it gets to the target (e.g., brain or heart) in an individual’s body is “in principle … a great idea,” said Dr. James Kennedy, head of the molecular science at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.  

Some people are genetically prone to getting rid of a certain drug quickly, meaning it might not have time to take effect, he said. Others may be genetically predisposed to processing the same drug very slowly, meaning it can build up in the bloodstream and cause side effects. 

DNA testing is ‘a great starting point’ when it comes to understanding how your body handles medications, says Dr. James Kennedy at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. But there are many other factors at play. (CBC News)

The process of collecting genetic material from saliva for the tests is straightforward, Kennedy said, but interpreting the results can be much more complicated. 

“The DNA technology is very good,” he said. “But understanding how that plays out in a whole complex human being is not easy at all.”

There are other factors besides genetic makeup that can affect how a person interacts with medication, including how many drugs they are taking, whether they smoke, how much they exercise, their diet, and how much they sleep, he said. 

“We’re all a mixture of our genes and what we’re exposed to in our environment and how we react.” 

‘Great starting point’

Still, Kennedy doesn’t discount the value of direct-to-consumer tests — especially if people think they are either slow or fast metabolizers of certain drugs. But he cautions patients not to expect too much yet. 

“I think it’s a great starting point to begin to get information about your body and how it handles medications,” Kennedy said. “But don’t consider it the answer as to, you know, absolutely what drug you should be taking.”

This sample medication report shows what a consumer’s test results from myDNA might look like. The company says it analyzes genetic material taken from a saliva swab to help determine whether or not certain medications are right for that client, or if they should consider different dosages. (myDNA)

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA), however, is skeptical about direct-to-consumer genetic tests overall.   

Primary-care physicians “are faced with the challenge of appropriately counselling patients when they receive their test results,” the CMA said in its policy statement on direct-to-consumer genetic testing

“However, few physicians feel they have the necessary training and knowledge in genomics to provide adequate care in this area. Furthermore, these tests may have no clinical indication, produce uncertain results with ambiguous clinical applicability and have tenuous legal status, but they can potentially influence a patient’s sense of wellbeing,” the statement said.

If a doctor wants to use the results of a genetic test their patient purchased, “they should ensure that the laboratory performing the test guarantees analytical reliability and validity,” the CMA said. 

According to myDNA’s website, “a strict quality assurance process, combined with state of the art laboratory facilities, allows us to control reliability and validity of our tests. Our reports and findings are developed in accordance to internationally recognized guidelines and factor in [a] large number of published studies.”

Its analysis team includes pharmacologists and molecular and clinical geneticists, the website says.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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