When most people think of Canadian medical innovation, the first thing that typically comes to mind is insulin. And while Banting and Best’s discovery was a breakthrough in the treatment of diabetes, it also took place almost a century ago.
“We always go there, don’t we?” says Pamela Fralick, president of Ottawa-based Innovative Medicines Canada, an association representing the Canadian pharmaceutical industry. But we should also recognize the accomplishments of James Till and Ernest McCulloch, who discovered stem cells; Dr. Lap-Chee Tsui, who identified the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis; Dr. Chil-Yong Kang, whose HIV prevention vaccine is currently in clinical trials. And many, many more.
From the first whispers last year about the emergence of a deadly respiratory coronavirus in China, Canadian scientists have been researching and developing possible treatments, cures and vaccines for SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19.
Already, a promising discovery has come out of Vancouver-based biotech company AbCellera Biologics Inc. – a potential treatment for the virus developed in record time. In partnership with U.S. drug maker Eli Lilly and Co. and with $175-million in funding from the Canadian government, the lab-produced treatment that mimics antibodies isolated from a recovered patient has already entered into human testing.
University of Toronto molecular engineer Dr. Sachdev Sidhu and his team are designing synthetic therapeutic antibodies.
Already there are good results in trials in which antibodies collected from someone who has recovered are transferred to someone who is sick, Dr. Sidhu says. For many, this could be a successful treatment, he explains, keeping sicker patients off ventilators and, in less dire cases, alleviating symptoms and kickstarting patients’ own immune systems.
Dr. Sidhu says his engineered antibodies work in a similar way – except that they are more potent and targeted than naturally occurring antibodies and, because they are engineered, can be produced in massive quantities.
Dr. Sidhu says his treatment is ready to scale up, but after an initial $500,000 research grant from the federal government, no further funds have been advanced for clinical trials. Fortunately, he says, a $7.6-million commitment from Italy means his team will be doing clinical trials there. There is also interest from the Indian government to do the same.
“That’s good news for us; our drug will advance,” Dr. Sidhu says. But without additional funding from the Canadian government, he adds, it will be made and tested elsewhere and then brought back to Canada eventually as an approved treatment.
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