BC’s response to COVID-19 reveals the potency of its life sciences sector

President's Message

BC’s response to COVID-19 reveals the potency of its life sciences sector

UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Santa J. Ono

It’s appropriate that the theme of this issue of TREK is Frontiers of Medicine.

As we all know, those frontiers have been pushed back at an unprecedented speed in recent months, as researchers around the world – including at UBC – have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. This response has been complex and wide-ranging, addressing acute medical concerns and public health delivery, as well as broader social and mental health impacts.

In collaboration with my colleague, Dr. Gail Murphy, UBC’s Vice-President of Research and Innovation, I recently wrote an article for The Hill Times on this topic. It noted that UBC researchers have been working in collaboration with others around the world to develop treatments and vaccines for COVID. 

In fact, I’m proud to say that UBC labs – along with BC-based life sciences companies – have played an outsized role in the global efforts to address COVID-19. As a hub for nanomedicine and precision medicine, BC’s life sciences sector was well prepared to contribute, with three Vancouver-based companies in particular leading the way – all with UBC connections.

One notable success, Acuitas Therapeutics, has developed critical drug delivery systems and contributes the lipid formulations needed for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to enter human cells.

AbCellera – which has pioneered an artificial intelligence- and microfluidics-powered antibody discovery platform – partnered with pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company to develop an antibody treatment for COVID-19 authorized by Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration. AbCellera went on to post the largest-ever IPO for a Canadian biotechnology company, becoming the country’s most valuable biotechnology company with a market capitalization of more than $8 billion at the time of writing. 

Vancouver’s Precision NanoSystems has multiple clients working on COVID-19 vaccines and recently announced that, with federal support, they will leverage their cutting-edge biomanufacturing platform to build one of Canada’s first large-scale manufacturing facilities capable of producing mRNA vaccines and other genetic medicines.

Each of these companies has been celebrated as a success story of Canadian science and innovation, not only in response to COVID-19, but in an increasingly competitive and global biotechnology industry. 

They exemplify what it means to operate on the frontiers of science and medicine. Each is a spinoff from UBC, formed initially around research at university laboratories and fostered on campus. This ongoing connection to the university’s scientific enterprise remains vital to their success today.

Their success has been enabled by fundamental research, with UBC scientists advancing our understanding of natural processes over many years – in some cases, decades – to a point where it was possible to develop breakthrough platform technologies. In the case of Acuitas, the foundation was laid in the 1980s by a team of UBC researchers who started with a desire to understand the roles of lipids in biological membranes and realized the applications for precision drug delivery technologies.

I’m proud of the role that UBC – its faculty, its students, its staff and its facilities – has played in these COVID-19 success stories. And it gives me confidence that we can face future challenges in the same way.