It’s only 8 a.m., less than five hours after he answered yesterday’s last email before going to bed, but Yves De Koninck is bright-eyed and eager as he talks about the revolutionary possibilities of the biophotonic brain research program that he and his younger brother Paul are leading at Université Laval.
“We are developing new techniques and processes that enable us to better understand neurons and how they operate,” says Yves, a biochemist and pain expert, over breakfast with his brother, who is also a biochemist, in a restaurant near the psychiatric hospital in east-end Quebec City where their research labs are located. “This work has transformative potential.”
The emerging field of research they’re referring to is neurophotonics: the use of photons – or quantum units of light – to study the brain and its processes at the cellular and molecular level. It is an offshoot of biophotonics, which uses similar techniques at the general biological level. As with any emerging field of study, it’s difficult for researchers to predict what the future applications of neurophotonics will be, but the two brothers hope it will lead to new diagnostic tools and therapies for a wide variety of brain disorders. Other centres are looking at neurophotonics to treat spinal cord injuries and to create futuristic prosthetic limbs controlled by brain-computer optic interfaces.
The Laval group received a huge boost last November – and acknowledgement of sorts for the excellence of their work – when the university was awarded $10 million in federal funding over seven years for the creation of a Canada Excellence Research Chair in neurophotonics. The De Koninck brothers jointly prepared Laval’s proposal. The university has until February 2014 to nominate a world-leading researcher to fill the chair.
One of 11 new CERCs awarded to eight Canadian universities, the chair will use new and emerging non-invasive approaches, technologies and instruments to study the mysteries of the brain in the context of disorders and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), epilepsy, schizophrenia and depression.
In many ways, federal funding for the new chair, which is expected to be matched by the Quebec government and receive another $5 million from industry, is the crowning touch to more than a decade of fundamental and applied brain research at Laval. It also marks a milestone in an inspiring tale about two brothers from a famous academic family, and shows what can be achieved when talented researchers from diverse disciplines get together and, with timely support, develop an idea and become world leaders in an up-and-coming field with enormous potential.
Getting to this point
The genesis of the Laval group can be traced back to a $300,000 grant over seven years from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in 2002. The money allowed a number of engineering students to do their graduate studies at the Laval-affiliated Centre de recherche de l’Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Québec, a mental-health research centre that goes by its initials CRIUSMQ. The centre was created in 1987 and is headquartered in a wing of the imposing 500-bed Robert Giffard psychiatric hospital, once a 4,000-bed asylum, in the suburb of Beauport, 15 kilometres east of the Laval campus.
“Our idea was to bring [the engineering students] closer to the hospital environment so that they could better understand the issues of neuroscience research,” explains Yves De Koninck, who instigated the project with Paul. “Scientists often tell us, ‘I’ve developed this really cool new tool, is it of any use to you?’ Our thinking was that if we could show a new generation of scientists with know-how in physical sciences what’s needed and what our goals are, it would lead to innovations that would help us to better measure, track and even control the movement of molecules inside cells, and control specific groups of brain cells, with light.”
That strategy, he adds, was a perfect fit with both the medical mission of CRIUSMQ and the fundamental and applied research being done by the Center for Optics, Photonics and Lasers (or COPL), a Quebec City-based strategic cluster of optics/photonics scientists from the universities of Laval, McGill, Sherbrooke, École Polytechnique de Montréal and École de technologie supérieure. Quebec City also boasts the Institut national d’optique, a private, non-profit corporation that provides optics and photonics R&D on contract to industry.
“There was tremendous synergy and support on campus and in the region for the things we were proposing,” says Paul De Koninck. “The economy was doing better after the recession in the 1990s and there was a real push on to rebuild Canadian infrastructure and stop the brain drain. Our timing was perfect.”
The next big step came in 2005 with the creation of the Neurophotonics Centre and its specialized labs at the Robert Giffard Hospital. It was backed by $15 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Quebec government and other partners. Two years later, the De Koninck brothers launched Canada’s first international summer school in neurophotonics. The annual 10-day event continues to attract top researchers, students and experts in photonics and neuroscience to Quebec City to discuss the latest advances (the 2013 summer school was held from May 28 to June 7).
The success of both the Neurophotonics Centre and the summer school led to another milestone at Laval in 2008: North America’s first graduate program in biophotonics. “This is an exciting new field, but it’s also very daunting,” says Simon Labrecque, who became the program’s first PhD graduate in September 2012.
A Quebec City native with both an undergraduate engineering degree and a master’s degree in holography from Laval, Dr. Labrecque said he was wowed by, and wanted to be part of, Paul De Koninck’s ground-breaking work using fluorescent-tagged proteins to study neurons and synapses – a technique akin to putting a light bulb on the head of someone in a crowd and watching them move around.
Dr. Labrecque has spent much of the past eight years in the neurophotonics lab developing a high-resolution microscope that allows the synaptic transmissions that occur between neurons to be seen in real-time. “It takes a lot of time and effort to learn and understand the technical and biological challenges and possibilities of things like optics, computer science and neuroscience,” he says. “You have to go really deep to get your mind around it.”
Currently some 50 researchers and 300 graduate and postdoctoral students are involved with neuroscience work at CRIUSMQ – not to mention the as-yet-unnamed new Canada Excellence Research Chair holder.
A famous family
Michel Maziade, the founder and scientific director of CRIUSMQ, lauds the De Koninck brothers for their scientific work, which has led to several important discoveries, and for the lead role they have played in the development of the Neurophotonics Centre. “They are team players who are a real pleasure to work with.”
Peter Grutter agrees. A physics professor at McGill and renowned expert in nanoscience, he has worked with the De Konincks since the early 2000s as part of a multidisciplinary Quebec neurophysics research group. “New tools drive new discoveries, but new tools are not typically developed by people in neurosciences,” he says. “We do the mechanical stuff that helps to observe and quantify chemical changes with nanometre precision. That requires the need to talk a lot and to learn each other’s language.
“Yves and Paul are fantastic with that, because they are respected scientists in their own right and they understand how scientists tick, so they can talk to them and explain their fields of work in a way that inspires them.”
According to Dr. Grutter, Paul is “technically extremely good” while Yves “is like a wild-eyed kid in a candy store. He sees all this cool stuff in different fields and wonders how it can be used to further the frontiers in brain research. That enthusiasm is infectious for researchers and students alike – and I’m sure it will rub off on the new chair holder, too.”
Born and raised in Quebec City, Yves and Paul De Koninck are scions of Laval’s most famous academic family. Their grandfather Charles was a Belgian philosopher of Flemish descent and the namesake of one of the university’s main campus buildings. Remarkably, eight of his 11 children earned PhDs – all in different fields. (The eight include Yves and Paul’s father, Thomas, who still teaches philosophy full time at Laval at age 78, and their uncle Jean-Marie, a Laval mathematician who is well known as the founder of the Opération Nez Rouge service to reduce drunk driving.)
Both Yves and Paul graduated in chemistry from Laval and did their PhDs at McGill University before going to the U.S. to do postgraduate work – Yves at the University of Texas and Paul at Stanford University, where he received a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career award in 2000. By that time Yves, who had been at McGill five years as a professor and spinal cord researcher, had been recruited by Dr. Maziade’s growing research team at CRIUSMQ.
Paul was considering offers from some of the world’s top research facilities but says he decided to join his brother in Quebec City for both personal and professional reasons. “I was interested by the work they wanted to do and all their projects,” he recalls. “And Quebec City is my home, my family’s there and it’s really a fantastic place to live. Everything seemed right and I have no regrets.”
Their father says he was elated – though not surprised – that his sons decided to return home to work and raise their young families. “They were very close as kids,” says Thomas De Koninck. “Yves was the first to choose neurosciences and Paul just followed.” Yves, he adds, is “more of a philosopher than Paul, who is less interested in metaphysical questions. But both are good researchers who show excellent judgment.”
Mark Cardwell is a science journalist based in Quebec City.