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UBC biotech spin-off raises $75M to bring cancer treatments to patients

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With roots in UBC research, Alpha-9 Theranostics is developing cancer radiotherapies that target tumours while avoiding healthy tissues.

Alpha-9 Theranostics, a UBC spin-off company founded by three university researchers, has raised $75 million to develop next-generation radiopharmaceuticals that promise to meaningfully improve treatment for people with cancer.

Based on more than a decade of ground-breaking research at UBC and BC Cancer, the cancer drugs act like a homing device — seeking out tumours to deliver targeted radiation treatment, while having minimal impact on nearby healthy tissues. This precision targeting results in drugs that can be more effective and have fewer side effects for patients than traditional radiation treatments.

“We founded this company to turn the research we were doing at UBC and BC Cancer into treatments that will help patients thrive and, ultimately, save lives,” says Dr. François Bénard, one of the company’s co-founders, and a radiology professor at UBC’s faculty of medicine and senior executive director of the BC Cancer Research Institute. “Seeing these treatments move into clinical testing following more than a decade of basic and translational research is inspiring and the result of a tremendous collaborative effort. This new financing will further accelerate development, bringing new cancer treatments to patients faster.”

Alpha-9’s radiopharmaceuticals are designed to treat a range of solid and hematologic cancers such as prostate cancer, breast cancer, leukemia and lymphoma. According to Dr. David Hirsch, chief executive officer of Alpha-9, the $75 million in Series B financing will enable the company to bring its first five treatments into clinical trials with patients over the next two years.

“Thanks to the cutting-edge research at UBC, these radiotherapies have tremendous potential to address a wide range of cancers,” says Dr. Hirsch. “In the coming years, we plan to progress multiple treatments into first-in-human clinical trials, harnessing the potential of radiopharmaceuticals to realize more effective treatments for people living with cancer.”

From UBC labs to successful start-up

Alpha-9 was founded in 2019 by Dr. Bénard alongside UBC professors Drs. Kuo-Shyan Lin and David Perrin. But it was a decade earlier that the trio first started working together.

Dr. Perrin, a UBC professor of chemistry, had invented a new method to easily tag molecules with fluorine-18, a radioisotope widely used for cancer imaging. He and Dr. Bénard started exploring how to use this method to label peptides — small molecules that seek out and attach to unique proteins that exist on the surface of tumours — to improve cancer diagnosis.

At the same time, Dr. Lin, a UBC radiology professor and senior scientist at BC Cancer, was developing new cancer-targeting peptides and working with Dr. Bénard to label them with therapeutic radioisotopes. Instead of emitting gamma rays used for imaging, these radioisotopes emit particles, called alpha and beta particles, that destroy cancer cells.

According to Dr. Lin, they each brought unique expertise from their respective disciplines that helped bridge the worlds of cancer diagnostics and therapy.

“Our work was very complimentary and we realized there was tremendous potential to apply it across both the diagnostics and therapeutics spaces. We knew we would need both components, because if we want to do therapy, we also need a diagnostic companion to identify patients who will benefit from therapy,” says Dr. Lin.

Leveraging a team science approach, the researchers began developing peptides that home in on cancer cells, and combining them with diagnostic radioisotopes for cancer localization and treatment planning, and with therapeutic radioisotopes to seek and eliminate cancer cells.

“We founded this company to turn the research we were doing at UBC and BC Cancer into treatments that will help patients thrive and, ultimately, save lives.”
Dr. François Bénard
Professor of Radiology

The researchers filed a number of patents for the technologies they developed and worked with UBC’s University-Industry Liaison Office and the Technology Development Office at BC Cancer to license the technology and eventually form Alpha-9. Dr. Bénard is quick to credit the success to their multi-disciplinary teams, saying that many of the research trainees continue to play a central role in the company today.

“UBC trainees and students were instrumental in the initial research and several have now taken up leadership roles within the company to lead the science,” says Dr. Bénard. “It’s one of the many benefits of doing business in B.C. There are many highly-skilled science trainees that come out of UBC, creating a rich environment for companies to thrive in Vancouver.”

Dr. Julie Rousseau was one of those trainees, working as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Bénard’s lab from 2015 to 2019. Now, she’s Alpha-9’s associate director of translational biology.

“During my UBC postdoctoral training with Dr. Bénard, I was trained in preclinical drug screening, target selection, as well as radiopharmaceutical development strategies. I also had the opportunity to hone my mentorship and leadership skills by training undergraduate and graduate trainees within the lab. This exceptional training period has allowed me to assume a leadership role at Alpha-9.”

B.C. a leader in cancer research

Three years after being founded, Alpha-9 has grown to over 15 employees. The company has a research and development facility located in Vancouver as well as offices in Boston.

Alpha-9 plans to leverage the new round of investor financing to continue expanding over the coming year, growing its workforce to as many as 45 employees by the end of 2023. Construction is also underway on a new research facility in the Mount Pleasant area of Vancouver that will house the company’s chemistry, biology, translational research and radiochemistry teams, as well as support product formulation.

According to Dr. Bénard, it’s a testament to B.C.’s established leadership in cancer research.

“Vancouver is home to tremendous experience in radiopharmaceutical development and nuclear medicine that makes it an ideal location for these research labs,” says Dr. Bénard. “There’s a critical mass of expertise that is driving biomedical innovation, in part because of the rich talent and research coming out of UBC, and the broader ecosystem that includes world-leading organizations like BC Cancer and TRIUMF, as well as a range of established and emerging biotech companies.”

For Dr. Dermot Kelleher, dean of UBC’s faculty of medicine and vice-president, health, Alpha-9 is another example of how UBC researchers are driving innovation to tackle today’s most pressing health challenges.

“UBC researchers are accelerating the discovery and development of new treatments for a range of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes,” says Dr. Kelleher. “Investors and companies are taking notice of the talent and expertise that exists here and its proximity to the university. They’re increasingly choosing B.C. as a place to invest and grow their business, which is in turn, creating jobs and bringing new treatments to British Columbians sooner.”

Improving patient outcomes

For Dr. Bénard, what’s most exciting about Alpha-9’s rapid growth is the potential to impact patients.

“We’re not talking about 10 or 20 years down the road. There are real short-term objectives to open up multiple clinical trials with patients in the coming years.”

“Thanks to the cutting-edge research at UBC, these radiotherapies have tremendous potential to address a wide range of cancers.”
Dr. David Hirsch
Chief Executive Officer, Alpha-9

Dr. Bénard says that Alpha-9’s new radiopharmaceuticals will add an additional treatment option that is different, yet complementary, to existing approaches. And because the treatments are highly-targeted and designed to avoid healthy tissues, patients undergoing treatment could see fewer side effects and enjoy a greater quality of life.

“Patients are what this is all about. While there have been leaps and bounds in terms of cancer treatment options in recent decades, it remains the leading cause of mortality in Canada. We have a real opportunity to change that and improve outcomes for people living with cancer.”


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Helping people living with dementia ‘flourish’ through dance

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Dr. Pia Kontos, a Senior Scientist at UHN’s KITE Research Institute, is co-leading an initiative to help people living with dementia flourish. (Photo: Tim Fraser/UHN KITE Studio)

Dr. Pia Kontos believes in the power of the arts to support people to live well with dementia.

The Senior Scientist at UHN’s KITE Research Institute focuses on challenging policies and practices that discriminate against those living with dementia and developing and evaluating arts-based and digital knowledge translation initiatives to reduce stigma, improve social inclusion and quality of care for them.

“The predominant assumption is people living with dementia don’t have the capacity to be creative,” says Dr. Kontos, who is also a professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. “However, we know through extensive research that dance…powerfully supports people living with dementia to be creative and to flourish.

“And flourishing should be a goal that we all have.”

Dr. Kontos co-produced in 2023 Dancer Not Dementia, a short documentary film. It captured the power of a dance program for seniors – Sharing Dance Older Adults (SDOA) – to challenge the stigma associated with dementia, support social inclusion and enrich lives. It’s told through the eyes of residents and staff at Alexis Lodge Dementia Care Residence and Cedarhurst Dementia Care Home in Toronto.

SDOA was jointly developed by Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS) and Baycrest Centre in 2013 for older adults with a range of physical and cognitive abilities, including dementia.

Typically, dance programs in dementia care settings are provided as a therapeutic intervention for older adults. However, SDOA’s goal is to provide a creative outlet for participants and opportunities for social interaction with other people living with dementia, staff and loved ones.

Now, Dr. Kontos will look to incorporate traditions from marginalized communities into SDOA through a $750,000 Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Institute of Aging Implementation Science Team Grant. Dr. Rachel Bar, Director of Research and Health at NBS is co-principal applicant for the grant.

This CIHR funding supports projects that evaluate the effectiveness of existing programs, services and models of care that show promise for those impacted by cognitive impairment and dementia. An important focus is improving equitable and inclusive access to care and support.

The three-year grant to Drs. Kontos and Bar will support SDOA efforts to partner with organizations in Black, Chinese and South Asian communities to integrate their cultural practices into its programming.

Training dancers from these communities to teach the adapted program is central to these partnerships.

“People living with dementia from marginalized communities rarely have their traditions honoured with art and leisure programming,” says Dr. Kontos.

“It’s important to align dance programs with the cultural traditions of these communities. Otherwise, the music and movements wouldn’t reflect the experiences of ethno-culturally diverse populations, and the programs wouldn’t be inclusive.

“We wouldn’t be supporting their capacity to be creative or to be in relationships with others through dance. We would be falling short.”

SDOA has already partnered with Alexis Lodge, Alzheimer Society of Canada, Baycrest, NBS, Indus Community Services, Social Planning Council of Ottawa, and Yee Hong for this initiative.

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CDC: Heat may have contributed to four human cases of bird flu in Colorado

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Credit: Alexas Fotos from Pexels

Heat probably played a role in at least four cases of bird flu in poultry workers confirmed by U.S. health officials Sunday—the first cases in poultry workers in two years.

Sweltering temperatures in Colorado rose to at least 104 degrees, which is suspected to have contributed to the human cases, according to Dr. Nirav Shah, principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The barns where poultry workers were culling chickens were “no doubt even hotter,” Shah said during a press conference on the most recent outbreak of bird flu in humans.

The new cases bring the U.S. total to at least nine cases since the first human case of the current outbreak was detected in 2022, also in a Colorado poultry worker. Eight of the nine were reported this year.

The workers were separating chickens that were going to be killed to stop the spread of the virus. The fans may also have contributed to the human infections because, while helping to keep the environment cooler, they “also spread things like feathers around which are known to carry the virus,” Shah added.

The large and strong fans also make it difficult for protective goggles and face masks to stay in place, he said.

About 60 workers at the poultry farm showed symptoms of illness and were tested for bird flu. Four tested positive for bird flu and one additional presumptive case is awaiting confirmation.

The illnesses were relatively mild, with symptoms including conjunctivitis and common respiratory infection symptoms like fever, chills, coughing, and runny nose, according to the CDC. None were hospitalized, officials said. The other U.S. cases have also been mild.

Officials said they are bracing for more cases.

The CDC says the risk to the general public remains low and the health agency is not recommending livestock workers be vaccinated against bird flu given the “mild symptoms noted thus far,” Shah said.

An initial analysis of virus samples from an infected poultry worker does not show any changes in the virus that would make it easier to spread among people and there is no evidence of person-to-person spread in the U.S.

“It’s important to note that this assessment is based on what we know today and may change,” Shah said. “CDC is constantly looking for key changes that may alter our risk assessment of the virus, such as the severity of illness that it causes, the ease with which it can transmit to humans or changes to its genetic fingerprint.”

At the request of Colorado’s officials, the CDC sent a 10-person team to Colorado to help the state manage the bird flu outbreak in humans and poultry. The team included epidemiologists, veterinarians, clinicians and industrial hygienists.

Shah also noted it was a bilingual team. Overall in the U.S., it is estimated about half of farm workers are Latino.

An analysis of the virus from an infected worker indicates that the infections at the chicken farm are “largely the same” as the strain detected in dairy herds in Colorado and other states, according to Shah. But an investigation is ongoing to determine exactly how the outbreak is spreading between wild birds, chicken and cattle.

Since 2022, a highly contagious strain of bird flu has spread across the U.S. at an unprecedented rate.

Georgia’s powerhouse poultry industry, which produces more broiler chickens than any other in the country, has mostly dodged the kinds of major outbreaks that have resulted in the deaths of more 90 million birds in commercial and backyard poultry flocks in the U.S.

About 1.8 million chickens will be killed at the Colorado poultry farm after these latest bird flu cases were detected.

In late 2023, ducks at a commercial breeding farm in Sumter County, Georgia, tested positive for H5N1. This year, in March, the virus made a jump to a mammal species that surprised many scientists: cows.

With a significant dairy industry, plus even larger beef and poultry interests, the potential arrival of the virus here threatens Georgia’s economy and the health of residents.

As of Monday, the H5N1 virus has been confirmed in 158 dairy herds in 13 states, according U.S. Agriculture Department.

So far in Georgia, there have been no bird flu cases in cattle, and there have been no human cases.

Since the unprecedented spread of H5N1 in poultry in 2022, the Georgia Department of Public Health has quietly monitored 132 people for signs of the virus, according to DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam. Those tracked were either first responders to one of the state’s few virus outbreaks in backyard and commercial poultry flocks or farmworkers where the infections occurred. Of those monitored, fewer than 10 people were tested for H5N1 and none came back positive.

Since the virus was discovered in cattle, a small number of first responders from Georgia who went to other states to help with investigations—fewer than 15—have also been monitored for signs of illness.

Federal officials said Tuesday they still believe they can eliminate the bird flu virus from , even as the number of herds infected continues to grow. The latest state to recently report infected dairy cattle was Oklahoma. North Carolina is the only state adjacent to Georgia to report an infected dairy herd.

Eric Deeble, acting senior adviser for the H5N1 response at the USDA, said investigations show the is spreading among cattle through cattle moved from one herd to another and the shared use of milking equipment. It can be contained through enhanced biosecurity measures such as thoroughly cleaning milking “parlors” and equipment, separating sick cows, and having dairy workers wear protective equipment.

Deeble also noted USDA scientists are also working with partners to develop a cattle-specific H5N1 vaccine—a process requires many steps and will take time.

The USDA is also exploring the possibility of developing a poultry vaccine as the number of cases soar, and outbreaks lead to the slaughter of millions of farmed birds. But USDA and industry stakeholders point to challenges that would hinder a vaccination program.

The biggest sticking point is around trade.

Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said mass vaccination would be impractical for several reasons, including the fact that the industry would lose its lucrative export market: The United States and many of its trade partners restrict the import of products or eggs from countries affected by the highly pathogenic strain or flocks that have been vaccinated against it.

“(Bird flu) has been, from an animal health standpoint, our top concern,” Giles said. “The challenge, and I think the industry has responded to it well, has been maintaining the state of preparedness and urgency and focus on biosecurity, and I think that has been accomplished.”

2024 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Here is the new guidance for RSV vaccines

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Health officials recently changed the guidelines for respiratory syncytial virus vaccines. Here’s what Canadians need to know about the guidance and the virus itself.

New guidance on vaccines

As of July 12, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) now recommends RSV vaccines for individuals who are 75 years old and older, especially those who have a greater risk of developing severe RSV.

Based on current evidence and expert opinion, NACI said in a news release, it also strongly recommends vaccines for those aged 60 and older who live in nursing homes and other chronic care facilities.

What is RSV?

RSV is a common contagious virus that often causes bronchiolitis, a lung infection, and pneumonia.

Infants face the highest risk of developing severe RSV disease, however, this risk also increases with age and with certain medical conditions, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). It can lead to serious complications for older people, including hospitalization and death.

What are the symptoms?

RSV typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms that usually begin two to eight days after exposure to the virus, according to PHAC.

Those with RSV may experience a runny nose, coughing, sneezing, wheezing, fever and less appetite and energy. Infants may be irritable, have trouble breathing and have less appetite and energy.

What is the treatment?

RSV infections are usually mild and last about one to two weeks. If you are infected, health officials recommend you stay home and limit contact with others.

They also recommend lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Take over-the-counter products, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, if you have a fever. Seek immediate care or go to the hospital if you’re having trouble breathing or become dehydrated, PHAC adds.

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