Innovation Saskatchewan is responsible for implementing the province’s innovation priorities and helping grow Saskatchewan’s tech sector. Effective April 2022, this includes operation of the Innovation Place technology parks in Saskatoon and Regina.

ZYUS and the future of plant-based vaccines

ZYUS Life Sciences, a bio-pharmaceutical company focused on plant-based therapeutics and tenant at Innovation Place in Saskatoon, has successfully synthesized the protein as an antigen of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in plant cells for development of a plant-based COVID-19 vaccine. Though plant-based vaccine development may be a bit behind other more traditional COVID-19 vaccine trials, the research has gained a lot of ground within the three months since it began. ZYUS has been able to obtain the gene profile from the University of Saskatchewan’s the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) collaborators for the antigen, redesign the gene for plant expression and successfully purify it from the plant.

“I think plants are going to become a strong source of generating medicines in the future,” says Brent Zettl, President and CEO of ZYUS. Traditionally, vaccines are created using either eggs or an animal self-suspension culture and while using plants is a relatively new technology, it is potentially a very viable method. There are three main economic advantages to developing a plant-based vaccine:

  • Faster scale up. The logistics of scale up tend to be quicker using a plant model versus an animal cell fermentation model.
  • Potential lower price point. Plants are able to effectively replicate viral proteins, resulting in a higher yield over time and a lower cost in production.
  • Building capacity. Developing the bio-machinery and biotechnology platforms will create a more established body of knowledge for future vaccine development.

Additionally, Zettl believes that the potential long-term advantages of a strong Canadian biomedical program and Canadian economy will far outweigh any current short-term setbacks. “Having multiple avenues of research and increasing vaccine development capacity in Canada is a priority for our team and for our autonomy as a country,” says Zettl. Should future pandemics or outbreaks occur, a homegrown program will hopefully allow Canada to respond faster to public health emergencies and stave off harsher economic impacts.

Next Steps for ZYUS

The next phase for the plant-based vaccine research includes working with VIDO-InterVac to get the antigen “vaccine ready” -- mixing the antigen with helper compounds adjuvants to improve the body’s reaction to it -- before beginning the pre-clinical trial process. Once successful, it will then move on to phase 1 of clinical trials, hopefully early next year says Zettl.

ZYUS partnered with VIDO-InterVac in May to work on the project in a unique collaborative crossover between plant-based and more traditional researchers. “The mindset is we need more than one of these things to make sure that we're putting our best foot forward to combat COVID-19,” says Zettl. The two sides have continued to support each other throughout the high-pressure experience. “We understand that time is precious, but we want to ensure that we are developing the vaccine in a manner that ensures safety, quality and consistency,” says Zettl. “I have a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for working with VIDO InterVac. They've been really good partners in this development.”

Canada and particularly Saskatchewan have also shown a massive amount of support for the project, which is something the researchers have taken to heart. “It gives a lot of purpose behind what they're doing because it has a direct impact on potentially helping people in this country,” says Zettl. “They're putting their hearts, souls and shoulders into this.”

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- August 10, 2020