TEC Edmonton officials and partners in Prophysis, the University of Alberta spin-out company composed of researchers from the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology celebrate their new partnership: Seated, left to right: Chris Lumb (TEC), Dr. Michael Houghton, Dr. Luis Schang. Standing, left to right: Jayant Kumar (TEC), Laine Woollard (TEC), Randy Yatscoff (TEC), Dr. Jack Tuszynski, Dr. David Evans, Bindi Ferguson (TEC)

 

What do you have when 14 world-renowned virologists and their labs and research staff are gathered on one floor of a university building and interact with the groups of 16 other scientists with related expertise?

Critical mass, that’s what you have. Critical mass at the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology,  to produce new knowledge, medicines and vaccines for mankind to win the battle against virus-caused diseases like Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, influenza, herpes, and encephalitis.

“We all want to leave something useful,” says Dr. Luis Schang, one of the 14 as well as president of Prophysis, a brand-new University of Alberta spin-off company to “translate” knowledge produced at the virology institute  into practical disease-fighting products.

 TEC Edmonton is assisting Prophysis with business development and market research, plus lending its patenting and licensing expertise to the company.

The Li Ka Shing Institute didn’t magically appear because somebody persuaded famous Hong Kong businessman Li Ka Shing to give $25 million to the institute named after his foundation. The U of A’s applied virology expertise starts with former Dean of Medicine and researcher extraordinaire Dr. Lorne Tyrrell. Tyrrell’s research team was responsible for one of the great medical advances to come out of the University of Alberta, the first treatment for Hepatitis B.

Then came the KMT Hepatech Mouse – the U of A bio-engineered mouse that allowed scientist to test potential treatments for the mysterious Hepatitis C virus. The mouse solved one of Hepatitis C’s toughest problems. Before the KMT mouse, the only animal model in which to study Hepatitis C virus replication were chimpanzees, which effectively prevented large-scale testing of potential antiviral drugs.

Funding followed expertise. Grants from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation allowed the U of A virology group to set up two viral research outfits, the Alberta Institute for Viral Immunology and the Centre of Excellence for Viral Hepatitis Research.

Then came the recruitment to the University of Alberta of one of the top hepatitis researchers in the world,  Dr. Michael Houghton. Dr. Houghton is the co-discoverer of the Hepatitis C virus, through a game-changing molecular biological approach.

The demonstrated expertise and results from the U of A virology group persuaded the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation and the Government of Alberta to donate $28 million and $52.5 million respectively in 2010 to establish the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology.

The institute fills a major gap in the Canadian research world: Say a discovery has been made in a researcher’s laboratory. It’s very exciting, it has potential. But commercial funding will not be forthcoming for some time. It’s far too early and there’s too much risk.

“The institute allows us to explore the discovery,” says Dr. Schang, “to find out its applications, its best uses. Translational science can then further define and ‘de-risk’ any potential product discovered by our “discovery research”, take it to a stage that will be of interest to corporate entities. Development of the product cannot start until the product has been fully defined and de-risked."

Already, in the three years of the institute, the virology knowledge “pool” has resulted in 10 patent applications.

Wise in the ways of the world, five Li Ka Shing Institute associates – Dr. Tyrrell, Dr. Houghton, Dr. Schang, Dr. David Evans, Dr. Jack Tuszynski  and the University of Alberta as a shareholder –  have created Prophysis as a vehicle toward commercialization of the promising medical treatments emerging from the Li Ka Shing Institute.

“We realized we needed an early commercial partner we can fully trust,” says Dr. Schang of the formation of Prophysis to commercialize discoveries, should the researcher so wish. “A partner who would act in the best interests of the university, the province and the researchers. Rather than give control to controlling partners too early, why not be the controlling partners?”

As well, Dr. Schang points out, no entity exists in Alberta to handle the many complex and expensive steps along the road from exciting new laboratory discovery to a fully-licensed commercial drug product. “If we went to an existing company, it would be out-of-province and most likely in the USA.”

Dr. Schang’s own research into antiviral drugs has led a family of compounds known as RAFIs, antiviral molecules with the potential to be a treatment for such mundane human virus-caused afflictions like cold sores, all the way to combating a world-wide outbreak of influenza. RAFIs are the first potential commercial product coming through the Prophysis pipeline with others following close behind.

The Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology is bursting with expertise and accomplishment. Its principal investigators are already responsible for some eight medical products and/or drugs now in the marketplace.

Lamivudine, the first efficient Hepatitis B oral treatment developed in the ‘90s by Dr. Tyrrell’s laboratory team, has, over its lifetime, saved countless thousands of lives and grossed some $7 billion in world-wide sales for GlaxoSmithKline, the company which sponsored the research and then outright purchased its intellectual property from the University of Alberta.

If at least a couple of medical products  emerge from the institute and its commercialization partner Prophysis in 15 years or so, the principals believe they will have lived up to their promise to humanity, and left ‘useful knowledge’ in their wake.