ARCHIVED - Diabetes - Will Canada find the cure?
Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.
September 21, 2007— Vancouver, British Columbia
Canada has a rich tradition in diabetes research and discovery. Over 80 years ago, Banting and Best discovered insulin. More recently, the Edmonton Protocol enabled the successful transplantation of insulin-producing pancreatic cells. Now, scientists at enGene Inc, an emerging biotechnology company in Vancouver BC, are developing an entirely new gene therapy approach for diabetes. Their research has produced one of the most promising breakthroughs for the treatment of diabetes yet.
But, what exactly is diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that disables the body's pancreas from producing adequate amounts of insulin -- the hormone that ensures our bodies have appropriate levels of sugar and energy. At this time, though controllable in some persons, the disease does not have a cure. And, raising the stakes even further, diabetes is one of the fastest growing diseases in the world. In fact, the United Nations recently proclaimed it a world pandemic, making it the first non-infectious disease, along side HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, to carry such a dubious distinction.
That's the bad news, now the good...
"enGene scientists had constructed a modified gene that, when delivered and implemented into a person's ordinary gut cells, could instruct those cells to produce and release insulin, in a meal dependent manner. Exactly what the diabetic's pancreas can no longer do," says Paul Barran, an Industrial Technology Advisor for the National Research Council Canada's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP). "This was a significant discovery, but when I met them, they needed help with the commercialization process."
With NRC-IRAP's assistance, enGene began the many faceted process of turning an academic research lab into a commercial enterprise, building the solid business and technical structure that would attract long-term sustainable investment.
"When we approached NRC-IRAP, it was an interesting time," remembers Dr. Anthony Cheung, Chief Science Officer (CSO) and co-founder of the company. "We were close to demonstrating we could successfully deliver our gene to the gut cells, but finding investors to back a new gene therapy was very difficult. There had been a lot of money lost in this segment of biotech."
"It's true," says Barran. "enGene needed investment, but they needed business expertise to get it. Early on, I introduced them to Eric Adams, a local executive with multi-faceted healthcare experience to help them develop the business structure." Adams is now CEO and Cheung is back in the lab, happy to be heading up important research and development activities.
Initial assistance from NRC-IRAP was a non-repayable research contribution that enabled enGene to complete their primary development program, which was identifying a gene delivery vector that would successfully transfer genes to the targeted gut cells.
"NRC-IRAP consistently brings more than just financing to the table," explains Adams. "The program helps Canada keep innovative technologies like enGene's from moving across the border. Each ITA has a lot of industry specific expertise and connections. In our case, they recognized the need for more internal technical expertise and assisted in the expense of hiring and retaining some world-class scientists."
In 2005, NRC-IRAP provided an additional subsidy to support diversification of enGene's gene delivery system, now called GEMSTM (Gut Endocrine-cell Modification System) to the treatment of obesity. The success of this research is opening up new avenues for investigating the use of GEMSTM to treat other chronic diseases such as anemia, inflammatory bowel disease and hemophilia.
A major discovery during the obesity studies is giving enGene additional momentum. They developed a more efficient, safer and cost-effective "non-viral" method of delivering the genes into the gut cells. This development circumvents many of the complicated issues the conventional "viral" delivery method presents. And, the development has had other significant upside implications. It has boosted medical and investor interest and is helping extend the patent protection of the underlying technology.
enGene has had a number of peer-reviewed papers published on GEMSTM and there are several more in the works.
In 2005, Frost and Sullivan awarded enGene their Excellence in Research of the Year Award. This is awarded each year to a company that has pioneered an innovative technology that is "disruptive" to the status quo and has demonstrated a strong commitment to its development. It recognizes technologies expected to bring significant contributions to the industry in terms of adoption, change, and competitive posture.
enGene is understandably excited about the future, and with the world in the midst of a global diabetes pandemic, we may have reason to be, too.
Enquiries: Media relations
Report a problem or mistake on this page
- Date modified: