Bold Breakthrough


Basic science and an ambitious plan could lead to innovative new drugs and help boost an entire industry

Last revised: December 2015 

Most medical advances are rooted in decades of research or serendipitous discovery. But a Canadian biotech spin-off is rapidly developing a promising therapy thanks to fundamental creative thinking coupled with a specific goal. “We are, so far, the only group in the world that has been able to pull this off,” says Dr. Sachdev Sidhu, a biochemist at the University of Toronto’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Bio- molecular Research who fused his functional genomics expertise with the work of cancer biologists and protein scientists to spark the launch of Northern Biologics.

The company is moving toward clinical tests of antibodies that could transform the way certain forms of cancer and fibrosis are treated. “We wanted to do more than generate data,” says Dr. Sidhu, whose research was supported by Genome Canada. “We’re not trying to explain molecules to people we know. We wanted to collaborate with people in other fields and develop drugs.” By leaping over the barriers between disciplines, Dr. Sidhu and his colleagues were able to develop a “war chest” of dozens of complex molecules (or antibodies) that can be used, for example, to subvert the pathways of rogue cells. These therapies could be on the market within a decade of their discovery, twice as fast as the typical timeline. San Francisco venture capital firm Versant Ventures recognized the value of this research and invested $10 million in Northern Biologics, which has secured several million dollars for R&D and expects to have a staff of 20 by the end of 2015.

Not only does this offer new hope for cancer and fibrosis patients, it also could help invigorate Canada’s biotech sector. “Academia is where the really fundamental, exciting and game-changing innovation is happening,” says biophysicist Dr. Stefan Larson, the CEO of Northern Biologics. “In Canada, this community is vastly underserved by early-stage capital. We have an opportunity to take these innovations and spin them out into new companies and commercial products.”

What’s more, connections between researchers and industry form a “virtuous circle,” says Dr. Sidhu, who is on the company’s scientific advisory board and serves as director of Toronto’s fledgling Centre for Commercialization of Antibodies and Biologics. “This will give scientists experiences that will help us become better business people.

By developing antibodies targeted at proteins that have been associated with cancer, scientists hope to have a major impact on basic research in cancer biology, expand the options for cancer therapy and yield numerous commercial opportunities.

“We consider Northern Biologics to be a field goal. There are points on the board. The touchdown — a fully funded, large, independent company in Canada — is what we want to do next.” — Dr. Sachdev Sidhu, biochemist

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