The Ottawa Hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre harnessing the life-saving power of biological therapies
Tucked in between a cancer treatment centre and a stem cell research lab at The Ottawa Hospital is a facility at the forefront of medical innovation: this is where biomedical research is helping to provide the medical community with a new line of defence against some of today’s most pressing health concerns.
“This is where the magic happens,” says Duncan Stewart, executive vice-president of Research at The Ottawa Hospital. He’s referring to the hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre (BMC), which is leading the way in developing and manufacturing biologically based medicines and treatments for a range of conditions, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, as well as experimental vaccines and biological therapies for COVID-19.
For example, the BMC is the only facility in Canada that can manufacture clinical-grade viruses that can be used for gene therapies and to fight cancer. In the latest breakthrough, viruses are used to turn white blood cells into cancer-seeking missiles called CAR-T cells. “We take a patient’s T-cells, which are part of the immune system, and re-engineer them in the lab,” explains Natasha Kekre, a hematologist and scientist at The Ottawa Hospital. “Then we give them back to the patient. This type of therapy allows us to enhance the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.”
Triggering a person’s immune response to fight disease is not new, but what makes such therapies unique is that they are highly targeted and personalized, says Dr. Kekre, who envisions that CAR-T cell therapy, which is currently used for treating blood cancers, could potentially be used for other diseases as well.
Ushering in the future of medicine
Research findings in cancer, cardiovascular and degenerative brain disease – even COVID-19 – attest to the seemingly limitless potential of biotherapeutics, which are often referred to as “living drugs” because they use cells and components of cells to prevent, treat and cure life-threatening conditions. Dr. Stewart considers them “the future of medicine.”
The BMC, which was established in 2006, has manufactured more than a dozen biological therapies for clinical trials in Canada and around the world, making it the most experienced and successful clean-room facility of its kind in Canada. Its products include not only immunotherapies for cancer but also stem cells for heart and lung diseases, gene therapy for rare diseases and, more recently, therapies and vaccines to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The impact of this cutting-edge research has also spurred significant economic activity. The Canada Foundation for Innovation’s $5-million investment in BMC has been leveraged at least tenfold by investments from other sources. BMC has also fostered more than five startup companies, which continue to invest in Canadian research and innovation.
Boosting Canada’s innovation capabilities
The coronavirus pandemic has brought attention to the need for increasing domestic manufacturing capabilities. That’s where the BMC – which is currently helping to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines for clinical trials in collaboration with Canadian industry partners – can serve as an example, Dr. Stewart suggests.
“We are able to do the full end-to-end manufacturing,” he says. “That includes fill finish: taking the final product and putting it into vials or other containers that can be delivered for direct use to the patient.”
In addition to investments in infrastructure, Dr. Stewart sees a strong focus on nurturing talent as a key pillar for success. “We recognized early on that shiny new facilities aren’t enough,” he says. “What really makes things happen is the people who have this very specialized expertise.”
With world-class biomanufacturing embedded within a teaching hospital, the BMC is “ideally positioned to train these highly skilled technicians and workers, as well as do the manufacturing,” says Dr. Stewart.
Dr. Kekre is grateful to be to part of the endeavour. “BMC does awesome work,” she says. “It is giving me, a junior investigator, the opportunity to try and improve the care of my cancer patients through building clinical trials that can potentially save lives.”
Research advances in biotherapies also represent “important developments for Canada,” notes Dr. Kekre. “Having domestic infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities is very important for ensuring that Canadian patients benefit from Canadian research.”
More than anything, Dr. Kekre is hoping to improve the outlook for people diagnosed with cancer. “Unfortunately, even with chemo, radiation and standard therapies, patients still often hear that their cancer is not curable,” she says.
“Hopefully, in my lifetime, we will see biotherapies not only alleviate suffering but also cure a lot of patients with different types of cancers as well as other diseases. The possibilities are endless.”
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