Acuitas Therapeutics: The Canadian technology that the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine 'can't work without'

Acuitas Therapeutics scientist

People around the world saw a “light at the end of the tunnel” when it was announced that Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine candidate may be 90 per cent effective at preventing COVID-19, and Canadian company Acuitas Therapeutics is behind a core component of the vaccine.

“The vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech is using...a messenger RNA, which are the instructions to produce a protein that's found in the COVID-19 virus,” Dr. Thomas Madden, Acuitas Therapeutics President and CEO told Yahoo Canada.

“The message is administered, gets into our cells, the cells produce the COVID-19 protein, and our immune system recognizes that protein and develops an immune response, which protects us against future infections.”

The Vancouver-based biotechnology company specializes in the development of lipid nanoparticles (LNP) delivery systems for molecular therapeutics. Dr. Madden explained that this messenger RNA (mRNA) used in the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is “very fragile” after administration and needs to be put in a carrier to “protect it,” which is where Acuitas Therapeutics technology comes into play.

“It needs to be in this carrier so that the carrier can deliver it inside cells,” he said. “The lipid nanoparticles technology that Acuitas provides is a critical component, the vaccine simply can't work without that delivery technology.”

Dr. Thomas Madden, President and CEO of Acuitas Therapeutics
Dr. Thomas Madden, President and CEO of Acuitas Therapeutics

Acuitas Therapeutics’ technology was in development for vaccines prior to COVID-19, including use in a rabies vaccine that’s currently under clinical development, but the company is also supporting coronavirus vaccines being developed by CureVac and Imperial College London.

In terms of any possible mutations of the virus and how that would impact this vaccine, Dr. Madden explained that COVID-19 does not mutate as quickly as others, like the flu virus, but one of the most “attractive” features of the mRNA technology is the ability to design a new vaccine, if needed.

“Should there be a strain of the virus that emerges that the vaccine isn't protected against...we could then design a new vaccine, which is specific to protect against those emerging viral strains,” he said. “Obviously that would still require additional clinical studies but where those strains start to emerge, then we could quickly identify a vaccine candidate that could begin testing.”

One of the core considerations of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is that it needs to be stored at -70 C, which brings up logistical considerations for distribution.

“One of the biggest challenges when you're developing a vaccine this quickly is that you don't have time for the long stability studies that are required to provide data to regulatory agencies to allow storage of two to eight degrees, for example,” Dr. Madden said. “As I like to say, you can't run a two-year stability study in six months, and so in an abundance of caution we've taken the most conservative approach.”

Concerns about longer term consequences of COVID-19 infections

Although this particular vaccine is getting a large amount of attention, based on this newly released data, the Acuitas Therapeutics President and CEO indicated this is good news, on a more broad level, for all companies developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

“The fact that we have seen protection against infection is also suggestive that other vaccine trials that are ongoing at the moment will also share a protective effect,” he said.

In terms of ongoing questions about the virus that could impact the development of a vaccine, Dr. Madden stressed that COVID-19 is “unusual” in many ways, including the longer term impacts from the infection.

“I think one of the most interesting and also concerning characteristics is the fact that there are people who have long term consequences from infection with COVID-19,” he said. “We don't really understand why that is and also, different individuals seem to have challenges affecting different organs, the lungs, the heart, and other organs.”

“I think the hope at this point though is that we could substantially reduce the spread of the virus, substantially protect people against infection and reduce the incidence of these longer term consequences.”