The Canadian connection to Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine

Acuitas Therapeutics, which developed the nanotechnology that enables the Pfizer vaccine to work, is in the spotlight.

Elizabeth Payne November 12, 2020

A small Canadian biotech company is playing a starring role in a COVID-19 vaccine whose positive early results made headlines this week.

On Sunday, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German company BioNTech announced that their RNA-based COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90 per cent effective, according to early data.

There are still many questions that need to be answered about the vaccine, which is one of dozens in development around the world.

But it has put Vancouver-based Acuitas Therapeutics, which developed the nanotechnology that enables the Pfizer vaccine to work, in the spotlight. Its contribution is the delivery system based on lipid nanoparticles that allows the messenger RNA to be safely delivered to its target.

President and CEO Thomas Madden, a world expert in the field of nanotechnology, said he and others at the company “have been on tenterhooks” waiting to see data from the clinical trials of the vaccine.

“Everybody is just delighted that it is looking so positive.”

Canadian scientist Alan Bernstein, who is president and CEO of the global research organization CIFAR and a member of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, likens lipid nanoparticles to small soap bubbles that protect the messenger RNA from degrading, facilitate getting it into cells, and enable it to act like a booster to the immune system.

“Without lipid nanoparticles, there would be no RNA vaccines.”

Dr. Thomas Madden – the president and CEO of Acuitas David Madden / jpg

Madden has, in interviews, compared the delivery technology to a carrier for a fragile glass ornament getting delivered to your home. Not only would the carrier protect the ornament, it would let itself into the home, unwrap the package and leave the ornament, he said.

Vaccines that are based on messenger RNA are relatively new. The technology will get high-profile tests in the fight against COVID-19. Pfizer is not the only company whose experimental vaccine is based on the technology.

Moderna, which is also expected to report trial results soon, has also developed a RNA vaccine, as have others, including at least one Canadian vaccine.

Like other vaccines, those designed using messenger RNA trigger the body to produce an immune response, in this case to COVID-19. They do it by introducing a mRNA sequence (telling the cells what to build) that produces an antigen that triggers an immune response.

The vaccines are generally faster and cheaper to produce than traditional vaccines, however RNA is fragile and needs to be protected. That is where nanotechnology comes in.

Madden said the carrier system technology was originally created with the hope that it could be used in gene editing. Over years, the technology, developed by a researcher at the University of British Columbia, has been improved and is now used for vaccines and therapeutics.

“It is definitely Canadian and Canadians should take pride in the fact that they are contributing,” said Madden.

Everyone at the small company — which employs 29 people — has been working since February to support efforts around the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are trying to compress many years of development work into a few short months,” he said.

Madden said contributing to the vaccine effort has been rewarding.

“Everybody has been impacted by COVID-19 to a lesser or a greater extent. What has been fantastic for my colleagues is that they have the feeling they are contributing toward the solution. The work is intended to help us emerge from this pandemic.”

Bernstein said the lipid nanotechnology is one of the strong Canadian connections to research aimed at ending the pandemic.

“The lesson here is about science and global collaboration.”

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