Manufacturing biomaterials to enable research

Department of Bioengineering lab aims to help facilitate translating discovery to bedside

Amine Kamen, PhD, believes the new McGill Centre for RNA Sciences (MCRS) will promote collaboration and innovation between leading researchers across the University.

A Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at McGill University’s Faculty of Engineering and Canada Research Chair in Bioprocessing of Viral Vectors and Vaccines, Prof. Kamen and his team track interactions between cells and viruses, then engineer cell cultures, so that viral vaccines can be developed and processed more efficiently. His research helps ensure that safe, effective vaccines can reach patients who need them – which was integral during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prof. Kamen, who earned his PhD in Chemical Engineering at École Polytechnique de Montréal following studies at École Supérieure de Chimie Industrielle Lyon and École Nationale Supérieure des Mines in France, notes that McGill is renowned in Canada for discovering biological products used for health applications.

“We are very good in genomics discovery, but the value creation is when you translate this to the treatment of patients,” he explains. “In Canada, we’re trying to correct the gap in our capacity to produce biological material in a quantity and quality that enables not only evaluation in animals but in humans. My focus is to develop the process to enable the manufacturing – my expertise has mostly been on developing vaccines and gene delivery vectors for gene therapy and cell therapy. Currently, the focus is taking advantage of the RNA technology because it has been demonstrated that it's very effective for not only vaccines but also the treatment of cancer and rare or orphan diseases.”

Because emerging technology that helps turn recombinant viruses into immunotherapies can protect people from infectious diseases and treat those with chronic illnesses such as cancer, research into vaccines is expanding at a swift pace. And while this field shows great promise, viral vector vaccines can only have a significant impact if they can be developed, evaluated and manufactured. That’s where cutting-edge biotechnologies like Prof. Kamen’s work comes in.

The process is guided by very complex biological products, he explains. By studying how cells and viruses interact and understanding what cellular metabolic state is required for maximum productivity, Prof. Kamen’s lab, the Viral Vectors and Vaccines Bioprocessing group, looks for ways to speed up the production process. The team is focusing on integrating the genome-scale redesign of viral and cellular biological platforms, continuous process acceleration and intensification. This approach can then help create the necessary steps and technologies to manufacture safe, potent, cost-effective vaccines.

This work is vital to ensure important discoveries made at McGill can deliver high-value medicines to Canadians.

“These are steps forward to make it available to the population for treatment. The idea is that by establishing a solid alliance with governmental organizations, with the National Research Council of Canada and with universities, we’re building the capacity and the funding to support pandemic preparedness,” he notes.

The MCRS will help close the gap between the high-level academic research being done in various labs to foster a cohesive approach to innovation, says Prof. Kamen.

“The starting point here is to bring the people together and try to create value from what they can bring collectively,” he explains, noting that the new Centre will encourage collaboration where scientists can take advantage of McGill’s complementary technologies.

“For example, in my lab, there is capacity to produce the material others need and that we often don't know about, so facilitating this communication would enable the creation of value – bringing the product at a more advanced stage than just publishing the data. It's not only about getting equipment and having space; you need the right people to operate it. And there’s a need to connect with industrial partners and other research centres.”

With RNA technology, Prof. Kamen’s team is targeting infectious disease and cancer treatments by helping to develop platforms that can be used in situations like pandemics.

“In my lab, we plan to enable the making of the product beyond the discovery and the design of the RNA molecules, which would facilitate the evaluation and manufacturing of the clinical grade material that would enable phase one, phase two and phase three trials to demonstrate safety and efficacy,” he explains. “This is fundamental because if clinicians do not have access to high-quality, clinical-grade material, they cannot do any clinical trials.”

The MCRS will be a chance to showcase the bright talent at McGill, cultivate excellence and be at the forefront of science and emerging biotechnology, he adds.

“It's not just remaining at the discovery stage and publishing; it's making sure that we put in place the appropriate tools, so the idea of the new centre is highly pertinent. What I see is a core facility where we will be producing the RNA product and upcoming products earlier and more effectively and accelerating the translation to the ultimate end-user, the population.”

Read more about Prof. Kamen’s lab and research here.

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