Cannabis firm exploring plant-based tech with VIDO-InterVac researchers in quest for COVID-19 vaccine

The Saskatoon-based pharmaceutical company Zyus Life Sciences has approached the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) about developing a plant-based antigen for a possible COVID-19 vaccine.

Plant-based antigen could increase vaccine production capacity, researchers say

Researchers in Saskatchewan are working with VIDO-InterVac to help develop a potential COVID-19 vaccine. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

A collaboration between infectious disease researchers at the University of Saskatchewan and a Saskatoon-based pharmaceutical company is being described by one doctor as a "science project" with big implications.

Saskatoon's Zyus Life Sciences is working in collaboration with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) to develop and test a plant-based antigen for a possible COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's significantly behind our other vaccine candidates right now," said Dr. Paul Hodgson, a senior manager with VIDO-InterVac, on Monday. 

"I think the more valuable thing is working with a plant expression company like Zyus to see whether their methods for expressing protein might be suitable for COVID-19, or perhaps even wave two of COVID-19, or other infectious diseases."

VIDO-InterVac has previously commercialized two animal coronavirus vaccines, for cattle and swine. The organization is the first lab in the country to have a vaccine candidate in animal testing. 

Typically, proteins needed in research are obtained using bacterial or mammalian expression and that's what they had been doing in coronavirus research. Hodgson says VIDO-InterVac has provided Zyus with a candidate antigen already.

The more vaccine candidates there are, the more data could be obtained, Hodgson said. Different candidates might work in different age groups or have different duration of immunity, for example.

"What everyone has to remember is right now these are all science projects," Hodgson said. "They're very, very important science projects — but no one really knows what the final vaccine candidate will be, which one will show the best immunity and which one will move on to protect the world."

Given VIDO-InterVac's history with coronaviruses over decades of research, Hodgson believes a vaccine can be developed. 

Zyus' work could replicate the vaccine's protein on a larger scale. If research and testing yields results, it has the potential to increase the overall capacity for vaccine production. 

"Plants tend to be like really, really succinct photocopiers of compounds ... so once you teach it to do something, it'll do it repeatedly over and over and over again," said Brent Zettl, CEO of Zyus and a pioneer in Canada's medical marijuana industry.

Zettl said he was wondering out loud one day and asked if vaccines are protein-based, whether the Zyus platform could be adapted to develop a vaccine. He then reached out to VIDO-InterVac.

"The rest is history, as they say, or the beginning of history," Zettl said. 

Enough of the protein identified by VIDO-InterVac is expected to be extracted and ready for clinical testing around mid-to-late August, when it will be turned it over to researchers, Zettl added.

With files from Scott Larson


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