LifeSciences 2018 published by Business in Vancouver
by: Jan-Christian Sorensen
Two Vancouver-based companies are creating industry leading research tools and technology and helping B.C. stake its claim as a world-class burgeoning biotech hub.
Precision NanoSystems Inc. (PNI) and Stemcell Technologies Inc. are just two of a growing field of Vancouver-based biotechnology companies cultivating a reputation for making big strides when it comes to enabling precision medicine.
Founded in 2010, PNI aims to revolutionize health care through technology by creating innovative solutions for the discovery, development and manufacture of nanomedicine for use as medicines and in medical research. The company provides a host of instruments, services and manufacturing capabilities to biopharmaceutical companies and life sciences researchers both here and across the globe.
Key among its technologies is the company’s NanoAssemblr platform, a suite of nanomedicine development technology that provides seamless microfluidic mixing and manufacturing of nanoparticles.
“For us, precision medicine means getting the right drug to the right patient at the right time, specifically through molecularly tailored and targeted drugs,” says PNI CEO and co-founder James Taylor. “Being able to affect disease at the molecular level is the key, and nanomedicine is a fundamental technology for ushering in the next wave of genetic and molecularly targeted therapeutics. PNI’s technology is being used by biopharmaceutical companies worldwide to develop drugs not thought possible just a few years ago.”
After studying engineering physics at the University of British Columbia, Taylor earned a PhD in genetics from Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology and then moved back to Vancouver to work at the Centre for Drug Research and Development. At that time, he co-founded PNI with chief operating officer Euan Ramsay, who brought a background in pharmaceutical sciences and a PhD in gene therapy to the fold, as well as professors Carl Hansen, currently director and CEO at Vancouver-based antibody therapeutics developer AbCellera Biologics Inc., and Pieter Cullis, an industry maven and nanomedicine pioneer.
Taylor credits Cullis – who was recently singled out for a BC Innovation Council Ignite Award for his work to develop a new nanoparticle system that can be triggered by X-rays to release anti-cancer drugs at tumours – for having made a significant impact on the field of nanomedicine and the continued growth of the sector in Vancouver
“He’s really helped to foster the whole field of nanomedicine both academically and from an industry perspective,” says Taylor. “Vancouver is very well known as one of the leading hubs of nanomedicine and of nanoparticle drug delivery, and a lot of that ecosystem was built by Pieter.”
PNI ranks third on Business in Vancouver’s 2018 list of the top 100 fastest-growing companies in B.C. The company has over 200 systems deployed in more than 20 countries, with more than 60 companies now using its NanoAssemblr platform, including 11 of the top 15 pharmaceutical companies.
Considering the frenetic pace at which local biotech companies have been making discoveries in recent years, it’s an exciting time to be in the industry, not just as a scientist but also as a bioentrepreneur, says Taylor.
“It’s an exciting time for the entrepreneurs who want to get into this industry or commercialize their science. The field of medicine continues to innovate at an accelerating pace, and certain areas, like in the treatment of cancer, are seeing progress that we haven’t witnessed in a long time, if ever.”
It’s an auspicious sentiment that is shared by Taylor’s industry colleague Andrew Booth, who can speak with a degree of authority on the matter in his role as chief commercial officer at Stemcell Technologies. Founded in Vancouver in 1993 by trail-blazing hematopoietic researcher and CEO Allen Eaves, Stemcell develops specialty cell culture media, cell isolation systems and accessory products for life science research and can lay claim to the title of Canada’s largest biotechnology company.
However, that’s not to say there isn’t still much work to be done in terms of commercial innovation before the Canadian biotechnology sector – and the tech sector in general, for that matter – can command the international stage.
“In Canada we tend to be very good at invention, at taking money and turning it into great ideas, but not so good at taking those ideas and turning them back into money and building companies around them,” says Booth. “We need to take our Canadian technology and sell it to research and health-care institutions around the world.”
That notion is at the core of what Stemcell is trying to accomplish and what needs to be the clear focus of Canadian biotech companies engineering the next generation of cellular therapeutics, Booth says. While he applauds government for helping to encourage growth, the industry as a whole needs to mirror the success it has seen in starting up companies with a renewed push on the scale-up side of the ledger.
“I do see a major change in the attitude that entrepreneurs have had, where they may not previously have had that self-confidence of thinking that a Canadian headquartered and operated company can ‘make it.’ I believe that the sentiment here in Canada is changing and we are starting to believe that now ‘we can’ – we can recruit the talent, we can build the companies and we can develop the infrastructure in biotech to succeed and grow and scale up.”
Stemcell is serving as an example for other companies in that regard. The biotech firm boasts more than 1,100 employees globally – most of whom work in the head office in Vancouver – and a suite of more than 2,500 products with facilities in 11 other countries, as well as a host of collaborations with biotech and pharmaceutical companies in B.C., Canada and abroad.
A very promising potential therapy among the full complement of cell biology research tools in Stemcell’s arsenal is CAR T-cell therapy, a rapidly emerging immunotherapy approach that involves isolating and re-engineering a patient’s T cells and then injecting them back into the patient to seek out and destroy cancerous cells and more effectively target and treat types of leukemia.
“It’s a very exciting field, and the dream of our researcher customers is that they can next figure out how to translate the same or similar mechanism not only to blood-based cancers but also to solid-tissue cancers,” says Booth. “It’s not lost on any of our employees that the reason we are here is to help researchers around the world find a cure for cancer and other diseases, and that is a highly motivating mission for everybody [at Stemcell].”
Read this article and others in LifeSciences 2018 published by Business in Vancouver.