Vancouver-based company plays role in Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

A ‘delivery vehicle’ made with nanotechnology by a company at the University of B.C. is a key part of the vaccine approved for use in Canada against COVID-19.

Acuitas Therapeutics has developed technology to allow the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to work against SARS-CoV-2.

The B.C. government has announced that long-term care residents and health-care workers will be the first to receive the vaccine next week. The vaccine comes in two doses meant to be administered three weeks apart. After the first dose, the efficacy is about 52 per cent; after the second, 95 per cent.

The New York Times reported that the vaccine worked regardless of race, weight or age. No one experienced any serious side-effects in the trial of 43,661 people from around the world but many experienced aches and fevers. The story quoted a Pfizer analysis saying that people receiving the vaccine might have to take a day off work or rest to deal with side-effects.

Acuitas Therapeutics is located in Technology Enterprise Facility 3, a five-storey concrete building at UBC, not far from the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.

Acuitas was founded in 2009 by Thomas Madden, the company president and CEO, and his longtime collaborator, Pieter Cullis, board chairman and scientific adviser. Madden said that it was humbling to realize that Acuitas has played a role in delivering a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Since February 2020, every single person at Acuitas has dedicated themselves to the development of COVID-19 vaccines to fight this deadly and devastating virus — working nights and weekends, missing important personal events and, I can confirm, losing a lot of sleep,” he said in a news release. “(This vaccine) gives us a light at the end of what has been — on a global level — a very dark tunnel.”

The delivery system made by Acuitas are lipid nanoparticles about 80 nanometres in size that protect the vaccine made out of messenger RNA (mRNA) once it’s injected. Lipids are organic compounds and key parts of the structure and function of cells. Nanotechnology devices were originally made out of metals and ceramics but now nano devices are being made out of biomolecules such as lipids. Messenger RNA tells the body to make proteins based on the genetic blueprint provided by DNA.

Acuitas compares its lipid nanoparticles to a delivery technology used to ship a fragile glass ornament to your home. Except that the package being delivered is the vaccine.

“No matter how bumpy or rough the journey was, our delivery technology would make sure that the ornament was protected,” Acuitas says in a backgrounder. “Our carrier would find your house, open the front door by itself, let itself in, unwrap your glass ornament and leave it in the front hallway for you to pick up.”

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