Creation of an innovative platform to develop the therapies of tomorrow
How can innovative approaches developed in Quebec be used to design new targeted treatments applicable to a wide range of therapeutic indications? This is the challenge that awaited Professor Michel Bouvier and his numerous partners from seven university and hospital centers in the province as part of the large-scale initiative launched by the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) in 2018.
The success of this $20M structuring project, supported by the Ministère de l’Économie, de l’Innovation et de l’Énergie (MEIE) through the Fonds d’accélération en santé (FACS) included in the 2017-2027 Quebec Life Sciences Strategy, was based on:
- The complementary expertise and creativity of its co-researchers affiliated with l’IRIC, the Montreal University Hospital Center, the CHU de Québec-Université Laval, the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, l’Université de Sherbrooke, l’Université de Montréal (MILA) and the Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital,
- The sharing of state-of-the-art technological platforms,
- The financial and scientific contribution of the biopharmaceutical partner Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) and,
- The know-how of IRIC’s Drug Discovery Unit led by Professor Anne Marinier.
The aim of the project was to set up a structuring program for a portfolio of projects for the development of innovative therapies to treat cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
Cancers and cardiovascular diseases: innovative and promising therapies
Four years later, the challenge has been met with flying colors! The initiative has resulted in the simultaneous advancement of a portfolio of four innovative and promising therapies to treat cancer and cardiovascular disease, which are at different stages of maturation and will continue to be developed towards the clinic.
More importantly, this large-scale collaboration has generated several innovative tools and confirmed the validity of revolutionary new development approaches, creating a solid and sustainable platform to accelerate the development of new drugs. These tools include several thousand molecules designed and synthesized for specific biological activities. In addition, a large number of biosensors have been developed to characterize cellular responses and analytical methods have been developed to link these responses to the action of the hundreds of candidate molecules generated. All these tools create the perfect conditions to ultimately allow the development of innovative clinical candidates that can be developed with great interest by the pharmaceutical partner or the researchers involved.
A structuring scientific and technological innovation
In addition to these tools, Professor Bouvier and his partners have leveraged a novel functional selectivity approach (biased G protein-coupled receptor signaling) that allows for the creation of compounds with an enhanced efficacy profile compared to commercially available drugs. A lead compound with enormous potential to treat cardiovascular disease and commercial potential was developed using this approach and is considered a candidate for clinical trials.
This new approach is now part of the arsenal available to the Quebec research community to accelerate the advancement of broader drug discovery programs. As a result, it will be possible to develop compounds for a variety of diseases requiring better therapeutic options. These tools are even being considered as a foundation for the eventual creation of a spin-off company, creating value and wealth for Quebec in the long term.
The success of this initiative is largely due to the collaborative nature of the project and to IRIC’s unique and highly efficient model for generating and testing early compounds and reducing the risks associated with their development. Indeed, the research and development of new compounds is a long and high-risk journey: out of thousands of compounds developed, only a few will reach the market.
A potential for innovation in health to be deployed
By pooling the efforts and expertise of some 100 research professionals from several Quebec universities and hospitals, while taking advantage of IRIC’s close relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, including project partner BMS, this initiative has created the winning conditions to rapidly develop and identify the compounds with the most potential.
According to Professor Bouvier, “In addition to having allowed the development of projects leading to innovative therapies, the FACS grant managed by CQDM has ensured the sustainable growth of IRIC’s Drug Discovery Unit which is at the heart of the biopharmaceutical innovation ecosystem in Quebec “.
Some forty research professionals from IRIC’s Drug Discovery Unit participated in the project and contributed to its success. Moreover, the success of the initiative has allowed IRIC to raise additional funding from various sources for more than $50M to ensure the sustainability of the technologies created, including various partnerships with the public and private sectors such as Ipsen, ExCellThera, RejuvenRx, Ono and Domain Therapeutics.
The future development of approaches, research tools and candidate molecules developed under the FACS initiative will be possible thanks to the model put forward by IRIC, which adapts according to the needs and stage of development of innovations by promoting, depending on the circumstances, the creation of partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology companies, or by directly creating new start-ups that will ensure commercial development. It is a model of success for Quebec and an essential asset for the biopharmaceutical sector.
Let’s take a look at Dany Filion’s journey to find a way to balance cutting-edge training in the life sciences with a challenging career not directly related to research.
Early in his university career, Dany heard about career opportunities in academic and industrial research. According to him, many other avenues exist for someone wishing to combine a scientific career with other equally exciting interests. Towards the end of his doctoral thesis, Dany took part in a collaborative project led by Pr. Emanuel Escher and involving three major pharmaceutical companies: Pfizer, Merck and AstraZeneca. It was the commercialization imperatives associated with the partnership with these companies that introduced him to a related world: that of patents and intellectual property.
On the strength of this experience, Dany decided to go head first into this sector. In order to confirm his professional choice, he completed a certificate in business law and highlighted his transferable skills. He then joined various law firms specializing in intellectual property as well as various innovative companies. Dany is now evolving in the Montreal start-up ecosystem as a patent analyst at Puzzle Medical Devices.
“For some, the choice to make a career change after the doctorate may seem risky, even disconcerting considering the time and effort that have been invested in it. For my part, I see the traditional follow-up to doctoral studies, i.e. postdoctoral studies, as a risk, particularly when you have to settle in another country for several years. Is uprooting, postponing starting a family and/or delaying buying a home really worth it? Are you ready to make this sacrifice considering the chances of landing a more satisfying job?
In my opinion, you must first ask yourself what exactly your professional interests are. While respecting these, can they realistically be redefined or extended to unsuspected spheres of activity? You have to be curious. Then, you have to validate your choice in any way and carefully plan its implementation. The idea is to find out as quickly as possible if this choice is the right one in order to optimize your chances of success, but this is usually easier said than done! »
Dany does not hide that initiating such a turn is not always easy. The intellectual property environment, including that of patents, operates generally based on mentor-mentee relationships, which can be difficult to find. Hence the importance of being motivated and demonstrating your interest in order to take your place in the sector.
Today, his career allows him to observe the success of tangible innovations up close, while evolving in an effervescent environment. As part of his work, Dany helps Puzzle Medical Devices navigate the complex world of intellectual property and protect its innovations. How his efforts paid off!
Does this journey inspire you? Discover CQDM and its success stories.
Luciana Coutinho de Oliveira speaks from experience.
While she was studying for a doctorate in biochemistry in Brazil or when she was completing her first postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Montreal, the university environment seemed to her to be the only place to pursue her passion for scientific research.
However, it was during her 2nd postdoctoral fellowship that Luciana was exposed to industrial collaborative research as part of her participation in the project led by Pr. Steven LaPlante of the National Institute for Scientific Research. She was then recruited by the partner company, NMX Research and Solutions, an environment in which she still evolves today as a principal scientific researcher.
While it is true that industrial research involves fewer scientific publications given the confidential nature of discoveries, Luciana points out that:
“Industrial research is extremely stimulating because it gives the opportunity to work on several projects at the same time, in close collaboration with our colleagues and at a much faster pace than what is possible in academia. And the tasks are far from repetitive! »
However, the academic experience acquired is far from having been wasted time! Her studies prepared her to be effective in the industry by teaching her to innovate, manage projects independently and develop cutting-edge expertise in several techniques valued by the industry.
“Don’t be afraid of change, try things. Follow your passions, which may be in the industry! »
We would like to thank Luciana for this inspiring sharing of her experience of scientific research in public and private settings.
There are links between university research and the corporate world. Let’s take Matthieu Chartier as an example, whose skills acquired during his doctoral journey in computational biology were crucial for founding his own business. Within the research team led by Prof. Najmanovich and in collaboration with many big pharmaceutical companies, his doctorate “taught him to learn”, as well as allowed him to connect with many key characters in this ecosystem.
Matthieu states that
“many similarities exist between a university research project and managing a business, whether it’s to evaluate the community’s needs, managing resources and deadlines or to solve problems”.
Therefore, advanced studies prepared him well to become the CEO of Fourwaves, a platform that allows researchers to organize scientific conferences and that helps share research projects. In his journey, he combined his two passions: sciences and entrepreneurship!
Thanks to Matthieu for sharing his story with us, which showcases the potential of collaborative research to well prepare the leaders of tomorrow to overcome many obstacles.
MORE SUCCESS STORIES TO DISCOVER!
The story of Epitopea achieved something exceptional: this innovation-driven start-up has quickly raised an impressive amount of seed fund to accelerate its impact in the fight against cancer.
CQDM, Oncopole and the Cancer Research Society are proud to have supported the innovative research work conducted by Dr. Claude Perreault and his collaborators, which allowed the development of an internationally competitive approach and contributed to the creation of Epitopea Company, thereby reducing the investment risk required for its start.
Distinguishing Healthy Cells from Tumor Cells – The Innovative Approach of the Project Led by Dr. Claude Perreault
Cancer spreads when the immune system is unable to effectively eliminate abnormal cells. However, the immune system has the ability to fight tumor cells when it recognizes certain tumor-specific antigens (TSAs) on their surface that can activate it. So, which TSAs are best recognized by the immune system? Are they shared by individuals having the same cancer? This is what Dr. Claude Perreault (IRIC) and his collaborators answered:
“My team has developed a unique and global approach that includes two components. The first is to identify TSAs more efficiently and accurately. The second is the development of new in vitro tests that can predict the immune response in vivo. Combined, these two components allow to select the TSAs that are most likely to activate the immune system.”
The approach of the multidisciplinary team led by Dr. Perreault was used to identify promising TSAs for acute myeloid and acute lymphoid leukemias as part of the CQDM-supported project. In parallel, other works carried out by the team have also shown encouraging results in breast and ovarian tumors. This Québec innovation is therefore not only effective for specific tumor types, but also applicable to a broad spectrum of difficult-to-treat cancers.
From Research Project to Company Creation
Rather unusual, the results very quickly led to the valorization of the intellectual property developed by the Université de Montréal and to the creation of Epitopea Company, with the support of IRICoR. The Company’s mission is to make better cancer treatments available by marketing TSA-based vaccines against different types of tumors. This ability to rapidly transfer knowledge and approach is primarily due to the highly innovative nature of the research, which was immediately recognized by several venture capitalists.
As Steven Klein, Epitopea’s Chief Business Officer, states,
“Having licenses under one company, through the creation of Epitopea, facilitates opportunities for collaboration with pharmaceutical companies. Depending on the projects, we have the option of developing elements in-house or partnering with pharmaceutical companies in a collaborative research approach.”
Major Investments to Create a Significant Impact
Since its creation in the spring of 2022, the start-up has raised $14M USD in seed funds, a significant funding for the Company. Strongly backed by 4 groups of investors from Québec and elsewhere, the team has given itself the means to achieve its ambitions.
Thanks to the advances that will be conducted by Epitopea, it will be possible to target several TSAs in the same treatment for a given type of cancer, which will optimize and simplify treatment for patients. Other positive economic and social benefits are expected as the Company intends to continue to expand the range of immunotherapies developed through new discoveries made by Québec researchers.
Would it be possible to detect the disease earlier using the eye? That was the hypothesis posed by McGill University clinical professor Jean-Paul Soucy and the startup company Optina Diagnostics in 2015.
It was at this critical phase in the development of Optina’s innovation that CQDM intervened. With the help of its public and private partners, including the Brain Canada Foundation and the Ontario Brain Institute, the organization granted $1.5 million in funding to enable the company to establish clinical proof of concept.
From Innovation to Therapeutic Application
The hyperspectral camera technology used by the Quebec company, which was initially used for stargazing and industrial applications, had immense potential in the human health sector. At the time and still today, there are cameras to probe the back of the eye, but none offer this level of precision in color resolution.
“Optina’s technology reveals 92 specific color channels compared to the 3 channels offered by conventional retinal cameras, which provides an unparalleled wealth of data. It is then possible to see things that were previously unnoticed,” adds Jean-Philippe Sylvestre, Vice-President of Technology at the start-up.
This wealth of data opens the way, in the long term, to the development of a whole series of complementary tests and diagnostic tools supported by artificial intelligence for a range of other diseases that manifest themselves in the eye.
The Leverage Effect of CQDM Funding
Once clinical proof of concept was attained, the company was in an excellent position to raise a series of additional financings: $4M round led by Zoic Capital in 2018, $25.8M round led by DigitalDx Ventures in 2021 and finally, $3.0M led by the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation in early 2022.
“The support we received from CQDM also allowed us to structure the story to raise additional funding: what clinical value do we bring to the patient and his doctor? What medical needs do we address, beyond the scientific innovation aspect?” adds Marie-Claude Marchand, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development.
Thanks to this extra support, the company was able to carry on developing its technology and strengthen its team.
In addition to accelerating the development of an innovative Quebec technology, this project helped build a whole ecosystem of relationships: “We gained credibility through contact with experts like Dr. Jean-Paul Soucy, Dr. Sandra Black and Prof. Lesage,” explains Mr. Lapointe.
The benefits for the company went beyond the financial aspect: the public-private collaboration opened doors for the Optina Diagnostics team in terms of access to patients and for the realization of other projects.
Ultimately, the benefits for the organization will translate into benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones: by using the eye as a window into the brain to detect the status of biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s, the Optina team intends to offer an accessible, non-invasive and reliable diagnostic alternative at an early stage. A potential revolution that would also pave the way for the discovery of innovative treatments by supporting more targeted clinical studies.
Theratechnologies is a publicly traded Québec biopharmaceutical company that was founded in 1993. It successfully commercialized innovative treatments for HIV and is currently developing a treatment for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). The company recently secured funding from CQDM, among others, in order to expand its innovative activities and accelerate the achievement of scientific milestones.
After focusing on HIV therapies for many years, Theratechnologies ventured into the cancer research sector by acquiring Katana Biopharma in 2019. Based in Montreal, Katana Biopharma is a university spin-off founded by UQAM Professor Borhane Annabi, a leading expert in the development of innovative cancer technologies who built the targeted drug screening oncology platform.
Theratechnologies is currently working with Professort Annabi’s lab to test new therapeutic approaches targeting sortilin-expressing cancers. This project is receiving financial support from CQDM and the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS). Their approach focuses specifically on cancer cells expressing the sortilin receptor, a hallmark of many types of cancer. Their investigational compound, TH1902, is conjugated to a drug and delivers its payload to tumors by using sortilin as a gateway to penetrate cancer cells. This mechanism could improve the efficacy of anticancer treatments, while minimizing side effects in patients.
Their research recently confirmed in vivo efficacy of TH1902 against several types of cancers including ovarian, colon, pancreatic, endometrial, and skin cancer, as well as triple-negative breast cancer. The results to date a very promising. Specifically, sortilin-expressing cancers, including triple-negative breast cancer, are more difficult to treat and are associated with a higher risk of relapse.
As part of their collaboration, Theratechnologies and Professor Annabi pooled their expertise and created a unique approach to oncology treatments. The funds from CQDM and CCS allowed them to expand the scope of their research activities, to explore and develop opportunities which they might not otherwise have considered. Their collective efforts accelerated the development process from early-stage research to clinical testing in cancer patients. These key milestones foster the potential development and future growth of the company.
VLPExpressTM, a discovery platform for new vaccines and therapeutic antibodies, exemplifies the exceptional impact of the support provided by CQDM and a group of partners to develop a therapeutic research and development tool. The first product from this platform is a seasonal influenza vaccine currently undergoing Health Canada approval. VLPExpressTM has also generated a pipeline of approximately ten candidate vaccines and therapeutic antibodies that now extends well beyond the fight against influenza.
A genuine success, VLPExpressTM has demonstrated the breadth of its power during the current COVID-19 pandemic by developing in as little as 20 days a candidate vaccine that has now reached the clinical phase. As the benefits and impacts of the project continue to multiply, they demonstrate the importance of supporting initiatives that stimulate research and innovation, which ultimately leads to the development of tools addressing unmet medical needs.
READ IMV’S SUCCESS
IMV’s collaborative project with Dr. Yves Fradet and Merck:
Development of a new class of immunotherapy for bladder cancer using IMV’s drug delivery platform
IMV developed a technology that generates a targeted, robust, and sustained immune response. This versatile platform called DPX is designed to introduce various targets to the immune system. The Company uses this proprietary technology to develop new classes of immunotherapies and vaccines.
IMV’s most advanced treatment is an immunotherapy shown to be effective in treating ovarian cancer as a single-agent therapy, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in combination of Merck’s pembrolizumab antibody.
To determine if this combination therapy could be used to treat bladder cancer, IMV has partnered with clinical researcher Yves Fradet and Merck. Dr. Fradet is conducting an exploratory clinical trial to confirm if the combination elicits an immune response in bladder cancer patients. This unique combination of IMV’s targeted technology with Merck’s antibody could potentially make this approach more effective than currently available treatments, while minimizing side effects.
This project would not have been possible without this trilateral collaboration that brings together cutting-edge knowledge, innovative treatments and hand-picked expertise: not only is Dr. Fradet an expert in immunotherapy, he is also an uro-oncologist responsible for heading this arm of IMV’s clinical trial. This exploratory study also offers Merck the opportunity to validate its products in a potentially new indication. This project could strengthen IMV’s position as a leader in cancer immunotherapy, while affording the Company a significant competitive advantage in bladder and other cancers. Patients would ultimately draw the most benefit by accessing new and more effective treatments against bladder cancer, with fewer side effects.
Feldan Therapeutics has developed a drug delivery system called the “Feldan Shuttle” designed for the targeted delivery of therapeutic agents into cells to treat, prevent or cure many diseases.
While discussing opportunities with experts from the pharmaceutical community through CQDM, Feldan Therapeutics considered a bold R&D project proposed by one of them. This high-risk high-reward exploratory research project was made possible with funding from CQDM and five pharmas that were interested in the potential impacts of the study. In fact, the outcomes of the project have generated significant interest from the pharmaceutical industry, as such a drug delivery system could improve the effectiveness of their existing treatments.
With the sound advice offered by pharmaceutical industry KOLs as part of the mentoring program, companies aligned their innovations with worldwide market needs, thereby positioning their technology early in the process with leading pharmaceutical stakeholders. The relationships and partnerships established with pharmas build value for companies as they establish numerous lucrative collaborations, for example by adapting a given technology to the specific needs of the pharmaceutical industry. In turn, this promotes future collaborations that feed the growth of companies.
A Collaboration Between INRS and NMX Research and Solutions that Accelerates Drug Discovery
Although Fragment-Based Lead Discovery (FBLD) is one of the most promising strategies for discovering future medical compounds, there are still until today barriers that discourage industry from pursuing this approach.
Redefining Drug Discovery and Chemical Optimization Strategies
In collaboration with Sacha Larda (NMX Research and Solutions) and Michael Serrano-Wu (3 Point Bio), Professor Steven Laplante launched a project to find solutions to these problematic situations.
Together, the researchers have enhanced a drug discovery platform to identify drug candidates from molecular fragments. Each step of the FBLD has been reviewed and improved through redefining the fundamental strategies used in industry as well as in the academic world for the discovery and optimization of new therapeutic molecules. Compared to other frequently used drug discovery methods, the platform that was developed within the framework of this project allows to significantly reduce the identification of false positives, thus allowing to decrease costs by more than 30% compared to conventional methods. Research can therefore be focused on the development of candidates with the best therapeutic potential, while avoiding considerable waste of time and resources.
More than 20 scientific articles and two patent applications, one submitted by Professor Laplante and the other by NMX, also confirm the success of the initiative.
Tangible Economic Benefits for the Industry
The methods developed by Professor Laplante and his colleagues have been added to the service offering of NMX Research and Solutions, allowing it to increase its competitiveness. The platform now lets several companies innovate by accelerating drug discovery. This service is currently used by more than 12 Canadian companies, including the Montreal-based Repare Therapeutics, which has been using NMX’s contract research services since 2019.
Simultaneously, NMX’s revenues have hiked by 200% between 2017 and 2021 with an equivalent of 20-30% growth per year. In a similar timeframe, it also grew from 8 employees in 2018 to 15 in 2022.
Furthermore, the project also had positive results for partner 3 Point Bio, which used the new FBLD strategies in its research program to discover candidate fragments and compounds for multiple targets.
A Bridge Between the Industry and Academic Worlds
Another benefit resulting from this collaborative project is the training of highly qualified and specialized staff. Indeed, throughout the project, several students were trained and developed highly sought-after skills. In fact, at least eight of them were hired by companies at the end of their studies, thus meeting the industry’s need for qualified employees.
Important Financial Support for Translational Research
Finally, Professor Steven Laplante’s project could not have come into being without the financial involvement of CQDM through the SynergiQc program, the contribution of the SMEs NMX Research and Solutions and 3 Point Bio, the research community through the INRS and the support of Mitacs and the Ministère de l’Économie et de l’Innovation.