Medicago, a biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Quebec City, has successfully produced virus-like particles (VLP) of the coronavirus in just 20 days using proprietary plant-based technology. The company did so successfully after obtaining the SARS-CoV-2 gene, which is the virus causing the COVID-19 disease.
Production of the VLP is the first step in developing a vaccine for COVID-19, which will now undergo preclinical testing for safety and efficacy. Once this is completed, Medicago expects to discuss with the appropriate Health Agencies to initiate human trials of the vaccine by July/August 2020.
Medicago is also using its technology platform to develop antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in collaboration with the Laval University’s Infectious Disease Research Centre, headed by Dr Gary Kobinger, who helped develop a vaccine and treatment for Ebola. The SARS-CoV-2 antibodies could potentially be used to treat people infected by the virus. The research is being funded, in part, by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR).
The company is partially owned by Philip Morris International, and is part of the tobacco company’s new course based on science, technology and innovation.
Philip Morris International (PMI) acquired a stake in Medicago in 2013, and currently holds approximately 30% of the company’s shares. The majority of the company’s remaining shares are owned by Mitsubishi Tanade Pharma.
PMI’s participation in Medicago is part of the company’s overall efforts to explore further science and technology-based avenues for its future business. Science and innovation became key competencies for PMI as it announced its ambition to replace cigarettes as soon as possible with science-based smoke-free alternatives.
The skills, capabilities and business partner networks that have been built over the last decade allow the company to explore new opportunities as it transforms its business away from cigarettes.
Major plant-based innovation
Medicago is a leader in plant-based technology, having previously demonstrated its capability to be a first responder in a flu pandemic. In 2009, the company produced a research-grade vaccine candidate against H1N1 in just 19 days.
In 2012, Medicago manufactured 10 million doses of a monovalent influenza vaccine within one month for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the US Department of Defence.
In 2015, Medicago also demonstrated it could rapidly produce an anti-Ebola monoclonal antibody cocktail for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Collaborating effectively for public health
“The pace of our initial progress in COVID-19 is attributable to the capability of our plant-based platform, which is able to produce vaccine and antibody solutions to counteract this global public health threat. The ability to produce a candidate vaccine within 20 days after obtaining the gene is a critical differentiator for our proven technology. This technology enables scale-up at unprecedented speed to potentially combat COVID-19,” says Dr Bruce Clark, CEO of Medicago.
Dr Gary Kobinger, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases and the director of the Infectious Disease Research Centre at Laval University, adds: “The collaborative efforts established between the research team at Laval University and Medicago have been very successful in developing unique antibodies against infectious diseases such as RSV and HMPV, and that experience gives us confidence for successful identification of therapeutic antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.”
Medicago’s first product, a seasonal recombinant quadrivalent VLP vaccine for active immunization against influenza, is currently under review by Health Canada following the completion of a robust safety and efficacy clinical programme involving over 25 000 patients.