Toward more durable COVID vaccines: McMaster spinout company earns key international grant
Carlos Filipe is McMaster’s Chair of Chemical Engineering and an Elarex co-founder and scientific advisor. (Photo by Ron Scheffler/ McMaster University)
December 10, 2021
A new company spawned by McMaster University innovation in the arena of vaccine manufacturing has received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Elarex Inc., based in Burlington, has been awarded a $1.2M Canadian grant from the non-profit humanitarian foundation to develop a new technology for keeping liquid mRNA vaccines safe and viable without the deep-freeze that is necessary today for storing and transporting such vaccines.
Maintaining the “cold chain” from the point of manufacture through the administration of single doses is necessary, but it presents a cumbersome, resource-intense and expensive barrier to the equitable global distribution of vaccines, particularly in developing countries. A technology breakthrough in improving the thermostability of mRNA liquid nanoparticles in liquid form would enable better use and distribution of mRNA vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.
Elarex was created in 2019 to commercialize technology developed by a team including McMaster’s Chair of Chemical Engineering Carlos Filipe, an Elarex co-founder and scientific advisor.
The team had developed a storage method for suspending biological nanoparticles in a dissolvable, edible material made from sugar and starch. The platform is designed to keep vaccines and treatments viable for months without refrigeration, even in hot weather.
“The grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gives us the resources to pursue mRNA-LNP stabilization with gusto,” says Elarex CEO and co-founder Robert DeWitte. “It is also a highly motivating external validation that we are going in the right direction, and we hope it opens the door to further collaboration.”
“A great part of working with the Gates Foundation is that they have an entire ecosystem around vaccine work,” Filipe says.
“Being part of this system will enable us to move our work forward more quickly, in the hope of creating benefits for humanity, which has always been our goal.”
Scientists around the world, including those at McMaster’s Global Nexus for Pandemics and Biological Threats, are racing to develop next-generation vaccines to control what is expected to be the long-term threat of COVID.
Creating affordable, durable and immediately applicable platforms for liquid vaccines is critical, so they can be incorporated directly into established vaccine manufacturing processes to meet urgent global demand.
The Elarex team is working only with materials that are already approved for injection, to shorten the route to broad application.
“Whoever can do this first will have a huge advantage,” Filipe says. “At the same time, it’s pretty clear to us that the solution needs to be as simple as possible to have a chance of working. Whatever we develop needs to be able to fit seamlessly, almost invisibly into current manufacturing processes.”
Elarex’s ongoing work to develop lab-scale manufacturing processes for its dissolvable vaccine prototypes gives the company a head start in developing a liquid form of temperature-stable vaccines, says Elarex CEO and co-founder Robert DeWitte.
Elarex would be free to commercialize the work on its own and would make the technology available to the foundation as it develops domestic vaccine-manufacturing capacity in low- and middle-income countries.