UBC-grown biotech companies lead pandemic efforts

By Thandi Fletcher

Dr. Pieter Cullis
Dr. Pieter Cullis, a UBC professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, co-founded Acuitas Therapeutics. Photo: Paul Joseph/UBC Brand & Marketing

Change starts locally. Here’s how people working right in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley are helping the region—and the worldrecover from the pandemic.

Millions of Canadians, including British Columbians, have received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Many may not realize that a key component of the injection was developed right here at the UBC Vancouver campus.

Acuitas Therapeutics, a UBC spin-off company co-founded by Dr. Pieter Cullis, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, developed the lipid nanoparticle technology that delivers encapsulated messenger RNA and allows the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine to enter human cells.

“The impact that it is having, it’s putting Canada on the map for making an enormous difference to global health,” says Dr. Cullis.

From UBC laboratories to successful start-ups

UBC researchers are creating biotech companies that are helping to drive health innovation and fuel British Columbia’s economy. Acuitas is among a growing number of UBC spin-off companies that are developing cutting-edge treatments and potential cures for human diseases. Others include AbCellera and Precision NanoSystems.

The common theme amongst each company? They all began at UBC, first as research in university laboratories and then as start-up companies. The university provides entrepreneurial support to researchers who have technology determined to have a potentially high societal impact that would be best realized through creating a spin-off company.

AbCellera began at UBC in 2012 with only six employees, including founder and now CEO Dr. Carl Hansen. Now the company, which pioneered an antibody discovery platform, is one of the fastest growing and most valuable biotech companies in Canada, recently partnering with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. to develop an antibody treatment for COVID-19. AbCellera is building two new facilities in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant and plans to add hundreds of employees to its current 250-person workforce over the next few years.

Precision NanoSystems, developed through a collaboration between Dr. Hansen and Dr. Cullis at UBC, is leveraging its cutting-edge biomanufacturing platform, with $18.2 million in support from the federal government, to build one of Canada’s first large-scale manufacturing facilities capable of producing mRNA vaccines and other genetic medicines domestically.

Establishing BC as a global biotechnology hub

For UBC Vice-President Health Dr. Dermot Kelleher, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the critical role emerging biotech companies are playing in developing safe treatments for diseases, including COVID-19.

“We still have a long way to go, but the pandemic has demonstrated what can be accomplished at an accelerated pace,” says Dr. Kelleher. “As we turn towards recovery, we have an unprecedented opportunity now to invest in BC’s biotechnology sector and to accelerate scientific discoveries into new drugs and treatments more effectively and more efficiently for other diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.”

Investing in BC’s biotech sector will reduce the time and cost for new therapeutics, devices and diagnostics to move through the development pipeline and reach patients faster, as well as create employment opportunities for British Columbians, including UBC students and new graduates, says Dr. Kelleher.

“Doing so will boost Canada’s reputation for research and care, enhance collaborations with like-minded scientific groups around the world, attract world-class scientists to BC, and boost our province’s economy by increasing opportunities for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector,” he says. “The result will be improved patient and population health, equity and quality of life, as well as enhanced sustainability of our health care system.”

Endless possibilities for new medical treatments

Dr. Pieter Cullis hopes to extend Acuitas’ lipid nanoparticle technology to be able to treat other diseases. He envisions a future in which patients can receive a vaccine to prevent any number of diseases, including cancer.

“This vaccine application is really just the tip of the iceberg,” says Dr. Cullis. “Almost every disease that you can name, from cancer to Alzheimer’s, could potentially be tackled by mRNA technology. My hope is that British Columbia becomes the world centre for developing these kinds of therapeutics.”

Thandi Fletcher is a writer for UBC Media Relations. This article was published on May 14, 2021.
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