Making a mark with molecules

Making a mark with molecules

World-class nanotech research community puts Montreal on the biomedical map by developing new technologies for medical treatments
November 1, 2006
Montreal is known for many things—its history, culture, architecture, and especially its fashion and nightlife. But what most people don’t realize, even Montrealers themselves, is that nanotechnology researchers are cultivating tiny medical miracles right under their noses.

Maryam Tabrizian spends much of her time in a biomedical engineering lab at McGill University working with complex molecules called polymers. Her goal is for these polymers to improve medical treatments by eventually being able to carry drugs, proteins, growth factors, and other substances to individual cells in the human body.

Likewise, a few miles west, in a state-of-the-art facility on the campus of the Université de Montréal, polymer chemist Françoise Winnik is involved in nano research, including the study of molecular-sized specks of metal known as quantum dots, which emit powerful fluorescent light. One day, medical professionals could inject this material into patients to serve as markers that would, among other things, monitor the delivery of drugs to parts of the body. (For an overview of the science behind nanotechnology, read the story Tiny Titan.)

Tabrizian and Winnik are both members of a community of university and research institute scientists who have made Montreal an international centre of excellence in nanotechnology.

Tabrizian is attempting to manipulate natural polymers based on polysaccharides that will carry human growth factor, a hormone capable of stimulating the formation of bone. She studies these long, linear molecules that can be folded to make nano-particles, or could serve as a coating that transports biologically active molecules used in medical treatments. Should her project reach the stage of an approved treatment for use in humans, it could alleviate the suffering of children who undergo surgery to correct bone deformations.

Such children, who may have one leg shorter than the other, or severe facial deformities, currently undergo a procedure known as distraction osteogenesis. Surgeons cut through bone and insert pins that are connected to an external device that rests on the skin. The device pries the bone apart so that new tissue will form naturally in the gap, but it can take up to three months to create only a few millimetres of bone.

Tabrizian’s research indicates that polymer-stimulated bone formation could take less than a month, reducing the risk of infection and the pain associated with the procedure. “We have evidence showing that the system is effective and that you produce stronger bone,” she says.

Meanwhile, Winnik is one of the principal investigators of an interdisciplinary group of 20 researchers from the Université de Montréal and the affiliated École Polytechnique. They perform their work with multimillion-dollar equipment housed in the five-storey J.-Armand Bombardier Building. Some 700 academics, post-doctoral research fellows, graduate students, and private companies now work in the facility, which opened in May 2004.

Winnik and her collaborators acquired numerous pieces of equipment, including a spectrometer, which can observe the emission of light energy from quantum dots and allows researchers to produce images of nano-particles, and a quartz crystal microbalance, which can determine the weight of such material in nanograms. Such imaging and measurement is impossible without this first-rate equipment.

“These are our everyday tools,” says Winnik. “We use this equipment 24 hours a day, almost every day of the week. It’s made a tremendous difference. Our lab is as well equipped as any in the world.”


Montreal’s scientific community is making giant strides in the tiny world of nanotechnology. Biomedical researchers like Maryam Tabrizian and Françoise Winnik are working on multiple projects that could lead to improved medical treatments. Canada is also experiencing a “brain gain” by attracting top-notch young scientists like Polish-born Piotr Kujawa, who has flourished in the collaborative and creative atmosphere at the J.-Armand Bombardier Building.

Kujawa, a post-doctoral research fellow affiliated with the Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Pharmacy, works with polymers that form thin films and can be arranged in layers, somewhat like a multi-tiered sandwich. These structures could be used to deliver drugs to different parts of the body, or as coatings for medical devices such as stents, which are implanted into the arteries of coronary patients in order to alleviate blockages.

Kujawa confirms that the equipment available at the J.-Armand Bombardier Building is indispensable to the advancement of his research. As well, the interdisciplinary approach is fostering a collaborative and creative atmosphere. “People from different backgrounds are working together, biologists, biochemists, doctors, and others,” he says. “It’s really exciting.”

Collaboration is occurring not only internally, but between institutions. Winnik shares students, post-doctoral fellows, and equipment with Tabrizian, and is involved in joint research projects with her and others. “Internationally, we are competitive. There is absolutely no doubt about that,” says Tabrizian. “Montreal is emerging as one of the best nanotechnology centres in the world.”


Several private companies have also set up operation in the J.-Armand Bombardier Building and are attempting to turn scientific discoveries into commercial products. Montreal-based Nanometrix Inc. has developed a nanotechnology that can serve as a coating for various devices, including bio-medical sensors to detect the presence of viruses and cancer cells, among other things, in blood, urine, or saliva samples.

Executive chairman Alex Kalil says several major international semi-conductor corporations are now testing the Nanometrix process for use in current and future products. He adds that the company has benefited greatly from having access to the facility’s sophisticated equipment and top-notch scientific expertise. “We get assistance with testing and our research, and we can use equipment we could never afford to buy,” says Kalil. “It’s critical that we have access to this infrastructure.”

Learn More

Learn more about polymers and what they look like and visit the Centre for Self-Assembled Chemical Structures at McGill University.

Evident Technologies of Troy, New York, explains the concept of quantum dots and the history of their development, and features commercially available products.