Bridging the gap

- June 25, 2024

Clockwise from top: Dr. Mahmoud Elsawy, Dr. Jeanette Boudreau, Sean Awalt, Dr. David R. Anderson (Marnie Gillis, contributed).
Clockwise from top: Dr. Mahmoud Elsawy, Dr. Jeanette Boudreau, Sean Awalt, Dr. David R. Anderson (Marnie Gillis, contributed).

A cure for cancer. It’s long been a holy grail for researchers like Dr. Jeanette Boudreau. But the associate professor with Dalhousie’s departments of Microbiology & Immunology and Pathology may be on the verge of better treatments using one of the most powerful weapons we have in this ongoing fight: the human immune system.

Dr. Boudreau is looking at the potential of using white blood cells, known as natural killers, as immunotherapies for cancer. Her research into these cells, which have proven effective in treating leukemia, shows promise. But Dr. Boudreau is facing a significant challenge. There are no biomanufacturing facilities in Atlantic Canada that can help her take this innovative idea from the lab to patients’ bedsides.

“It’s not just the ability to transform living organisms like white blood cells into vaccines and therapies that is missing here,” Dr. Boudreau explains. “It’s the ability to do what we call preclinical testing—figuring out dosing and toxicity—so these therapies are ready for prime time. Without a facility in place that can do all that, you either have to convince somebody else to pick up your discovery and run with it or you shelve it.”

Further reading: Channeling the power of natural killer cells to beat cancer

Thanks to Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine, that facility could soon be a reality. Supported by the fundraising efforts of the Bringing Worlds Together campaign, the Faculty is collaborating with Nova Scotia Health, the IWK Health Centre, the Canadian Center for Vaccinology (CCfV), and Life Sciences Nova Scotia to bring the facility, to be called GMP BioLabs East, to life. This innovative new undertaking will offer researchers like Dr. Boudreau access to biomanufacturing infrastructure, processes, and personnel that will help them turn scientific discoveries into life-changing medicines.

“We have great discovery research taking place at Dalhousie and across Atlantic Canada,” says Dr. David R. Anderson (MD'83), dean of the Faculty of Medicine. “What we have not had is a pipeline—a good manufacturing practice facility—for our researchers to translate their discoveries into drugs that can then be used in clinical trials. GMP BioLabs East fills that gap by creating an ecosystem for medical innovation in our region.”

Researchers in the Faculty of Medicine, such as the CCfV teams led by Drs. Scott Halperin and Joanne Langley (MD'84, PGM'85), first envisioned the biomanufacturing facility in 2021. In 2022, their vision came into greater focus when the Government of Canada announced $2 billion to support such infrastructure across the country. The scarcity of this infrastructure contributed to the challenges Canada faced both in commercializing and securing vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, Dal researchers have been building the partnerships necessary to bring this facility to life.

“The pandemic taught us that by prioritizing collaboration, industry partnerships, specialized facilities, and skilled personnel, we could shorten the 15- year innovation pipeline significantly,” Dr. Anderson says. “That’s what GMP BioLabs is all about. It enables us to accelerate the translation of groundbreaking scientific research into health solutions that make a difference now.”

Further reading: The Big Picture: Vaccines — How they work, and why we still need them

The health solutions that Dalhousie Faculty of Medicine researchers envision range from vaccines that treat influenza to ways to ramp up or calm the immune system to fight infections. But before GMP BioLabs East can run with new ideas, it will need to demonstrate that it is capable of producing the same high-quality biomaterials that other facilities create.

Enter Dr. Mahmoud Elsawy, an assistant professor and a hematologist with the Department of Medicine’s Division of Hematology. Like Dr. Boudreau, Dr. Elsawy is interested in the potential of the immune system to cure cancer. His weapon is chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, a highly sophisticated and effective approach that takes patients’ white blood cells, known as T-cells, and programs them to fight blood cancer. Although he is seeing impressive outcomes among his patients, Dr. Elsawy has to send their T-cells to the United States for reprogramming, which is not only costly, but also creates significant wait times in treating a disease where time is of the essence. He says the new facility will essentially get up to speed by reprogramming these cells faster, and that will make a significant difference for his patients.

“Currently, it takes about three to four weeks to get these therapies back,” says Dr. Elsawy, who led the introduction of CAR T-cell therapy in Nova Scotia. “Meanwhile, those cancers are growing. With GMP BioLabs East, we could get that turnaround down to two weeks or less and a much lower cost for the health-care system. That would help make a more affordable, effective, and timely made-in-Nova-Scotia CAR T-cell therapy available. It would also create opportunities to explore how we can use CAR T-cell therapy to treat other cancers, such as solid tumours.”

Once it is up to speed, GMP BioLabs East will initially focus on supporting the research of Dalhousie’s Infection, Immunity, Inflammation, and Vaccinology (I3V) research team, which is making significant contributions to the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, chronic inflammation, and cancer. But the ultimate goal is to make its biomanufacturing and testing expertise available to researchers and life sciences organizations across Atlantic Canada. Sean Awalt, CEO of Life Sciences Nova Scotia, an industry association dedicated to helping startups succeed, says that will be game changing for the industry.

“Right now, companies developing innovative biotherapeutics have to look outside the region to commercialize them,” Awalt says. “They must access larger markets like Montreal or Boston to continue developing their product, which is an unfortunate loss for Nova Scotia. This facility is going to enable entrepreneurs and companies to stay here and develop their innovations. It will also create opportunities for us to develop and retain biomanufacturing talent and collaborate with global biopharmaceutical companies. That’s not just going to help our life sciences sector grow, but also our economy.”

Dr. Anderson agrees that GMP BioLabs East is going to be transformative for the region and for patients when it opens its doors.

“It is really going to put Atlantic Canada on the cutting edge in terms of making new treatments available,” he says. “That means we won’t have to wait in line or be dependent on another country or region to secure our share in the midst of another crisis like COVID-19. We will have those treatments available here for us when we need them.”

This story appeared in the DAL Magazine Spring/Summer 2024 issue. Flip through the rest of the issue using the links below.


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