Canada’s Bioinnovation Pipeline: Growing the Bioeconomy with Early-Stage R&D
- Canada sees significant output from early-stage companies seeking to innovate in the field of biomanufacturing.
- A network of supportive organizations and established companies that lead in innovation allows early-stage innovators to produce impactful discoveries.
- Collaboration between government, industry, and academia can help streamline the process by which early-stage companies scale up and become larger contributors to Canada’s bioeconomy.
Increased investment will greatly benefit Canada’s prospects for a future bioeconomy, allowing for the development of more early-stage innovations but more importantly, giving those companies a pathway to scaling up. A thriving bioeconomy will help Canada tackle key health issues from cancer to future pandemics.
What are bioengineering and biomanufacturing, and why are they relevant to Canada’s future economy?
Bioengineering is applying engineering principles to biological systems. We use living systems and apply engineering principles from different fields, whether they be from genomics, artificial intelligence (AI), microsystems, or systems biology. That is applied to living systems so that we can increase their value and application, therefore developing some very impactful applications.
What impact will engineering biology have on Canada’s future economy, life sciences, and our ability to identify, treat, and cure illnesses?
Bioengineering offers promises for many different sectors. For example, we can apply these same principles to improve certain environmental remediation projects. We can also apply similar systems for diagnosing disease, treating disease, or even increase food security. There is a multitude of applications with bioengineering, but what is most exciting from my field is the potential applications in health technologies.
What roles do you see genomics and bioengineering playing in the future of vaccinology and immunology?
I do not want to sound alarmist but the general expert opinion right now is that pandemics like COVID-19 could become more frequent because of the coalescing of global travel and lifestyle changes. This may actually become a common occurrence. The good news is that the current pandemic has demonstrated that by rallying together different groups such as large pharmaceutical companies, early-stage discoveries, genomics, and various multidisciplinary approaches, we can find solutions together. Who would ever imagine that within a year, we could have a couple of vaccines that are approved and put into the hands of people? The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on synthetic biology principles. These newer innovative medicines based on mRNA could not have happened without prior research in engineering biology.
As we move forward, the ability to use these engineering principles and miniaturize the way we access samples and analyze and understand disease is going to be critical. If you look at genomics, we were able to discover that the COVID-19 strain was changing in its genomics because we had very precise genomic tools. As COVID-19 mutates, we can learn how it is changing and adapt the diagnostics and vaccines we are developing. That is a good example of how critical genomic principles become when you have to do surveillance and keep watch on what is happening.
“The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on synthetic biology principles. These newer innovative medicines based on mRNA could not have happened without prior research in engineering biology.”
If you take it one step further to diagnostics, there are two things that are needed. Diagnostics requires both the ability to identify a change quickly and tools to make the diagnostic simple and rapid so that people do not need to walk into a diagnostic clinic. In the future, there could be a situation where we have a device to test ourselves very quickly and rapidly. Miniaturizing tools able to gather specific and precise measurements will be possible with the convergence of engineering biology principles.
In terms of medicines, whether it is vaccines or therapies, applying bioengineering principles can help us discover and biomanufacture new medicines rapidly. We can compress the timeline necessary to have the scale at which we need these products produced. One of the innovations in the biomanufacturing field is digital twinning. We can use AI to monitor our manufacturing process and tweak and accelerate it so that we can improve the yield of our end product. This will become extremely important in the future with emerging infections, pandemics, or diseases, whether it is chronic or rare diseases. We are going to need these types of principles to help us be extremely precise, effective, and safe. That is going to be the critical piece of what we are want to see in new medicines.
Are there areas of bioengineering where Canada has particularly strong competitive advantages?
This is actually a very complex question because there are so many different factors that come to play when you look at what makes an industry thrive in a certain country.
Canada has strengths in early-stage innovation. We are very good at developing a pipeline for innovation. However, the challenge is that Canadian small to medium-sized enterprises tend to leave our borders and go elsewhere because they need more funding in order to scale. That is the gap that we need to try and bridge.
“If you look at the patents coming from Canadian groups, we lead in new and innovative discoveries for biological medicines.”
We also have a very healthy pipeline in the biologics field. If you look at the patents coming from Canadian groups, we lead in new and innovative discoveries for biological medicines. A large proportion of the pharmaceutical drugs regulatory agencies have been approving over the last five to 10 years have been biological drugs.
When we have such a healthy pipeline, we have an opportunity to retain that industry in Canada by helping grow these innovative companies. We are starting to see that happen in some hubs like Vancouver, which has strong biological-based companies. Toronto is another area that is developing into a hub, where we have many early-stage companies investing in biological drugs, whether it be for cancer or rare diseases. Montreal is similar. Those ecosystems are starting to develop and the opportunity is ripe to ensure that we do not lose this promise and instead allow these companies to scale in Canada, thus retaining biomanufacturing in Canada.
Are there areas of bioengineering where Ontario has competitive advantages within Canada?
Ontario has a very strong industry in this area, especially in early-stage industry. There are two areas with very good presence in Ontario, and the first is in cell therapy. In Ontario, there are a lot of early-stage companies and research institutions in the cell therapy field. For example, we have networks such as BioCanRx or the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM).
“In Ontario, there are a lot of early-stage companies and research institutions in the cell therapy field.”
We also have a number of contract manufacturing organizations in Ontario. We have companies like Therapure Resilience, which is investing in biomanufacturing. We have other smaller companies starting to put their footprint in Canada, whether it is in specific areas like finishing a product or just scaling up manufacturing. Examples include Novocol Pharma and Dalton Pharma Services. We have big vaccine manufacturers in Ontario. Sanofi Canada has invested significantly in biomanufacturing and they have new biomanufacturing facilities on their campus at York University.
In terms of innovative biological medicines, Ontario is strong in the area of antibody-drug conjugates. An antibody is a type of biological medicine and it is extremely specific because it is targeted to a specific protein in our body, depending on the disease. If we need to target a specific protein, we can create an antibody against the protein. Antibody therapies are quite promising in the field of cancer, not only for therapy by also for diagnosis because they can bind specific cells. In that realm of antibody development, Ontario has quite a bit of early-stage research and development (R&D) and new companies. McMaster University and a number of companies are working in the space of antibody-radionuclide drug products, which are used for improving diagnosis for cancer. Instead of using typical chemotherapeutic drugs or radioactive drugs, we can use specific antibody-drug conjugates. A number of companies are coming up in that space, but also for cancer vaccines and therapeutics. In terms of industry and academia, there is a strong presence of biomanufacturing in Ontario.
From the federal government perspective, a large portion of the NRC’s human health therapeutics program is located in Ontario. We also established an advanced manufacturing research centre in Mississauga. The federal government is investing in Ontario in many parts of the ecosystem that is going to be important for bioengineering.
What is your call-to-action for making Canada a leader in bioengineering and biomanufacturing?
For government, this is the time to invest in bioeconomy and change Canada from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. Bioengineering, synthetic biology, and biomanufacturing are three areas that are going to be extremely lucrative for Canada to take a leading edge in. We have those foundational pieces, R&D, ecosystem, and environment already in place, and the only piece missing is scaling up. Let us invest so that we can have those anchor companies and next-generation world leaders who can provide solutions for the future.
“This is the time to invest in bioeconomy and change Canada from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy.”
I would tell industry to make R&D part of their strategy. Often, industry in Canada only looks at their market exit strategy. They want their product to be picked up by a large pharmaceutical company so they can exit out of that cycle and begin a new innovation cycle. I would really encourage our industry leaders, especially innovative small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to invest in R&D and stay in Canada.
To sum it up, I would like to call for collaboration among government, industry, and academia. These are three fundamental pieces of an ecosystem that need to come together and work in partnership to make Canada the leading edge in bioengineering.