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Mitacs intern gains useful insight into industry

“Academia is usually short on money and industry is usually looking for new solutions, so a program like Mitacs Accelerate creates conditions where everybody wins”, says Josh Zaifman. “I was pretty impressed. The program really fits a niche.”

Over the course of his Accelerate internship Zaifman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Chemistry department of the University of British Columbia, partnered with AlCana, a Vancouver biotechnology company developing lipid nanoparticles, which show great potential as a new means for the targeted delivery of therapeutics.

Zaifman says his chemical expertise made him well suited to design the molecular “hooks” which are used to link small molecules to lipid nanoparticles, enabling the drug delivery systems to selectively attach to proteins on the surface of targeted cells. “It’s a new way of delivering therapeutic agents," Zaifman explains. The virus-sized nanoparticles can be packed with high concentrations of drug, protecting the therapeutic from inactivation in the blood whilst at the same time protecting normal cells from the effects of harmful drugs such as the types used in cancer chemotherapy.  The small molecules that Josh hooks onto nanoparticles are designed to target the drug carrier to specific sites of disease, to improve activity and at the same time reduce toxicity.

AlCana benefited from the fact Zaifman spent a good portion of his time on-campus, using University resources, such as chemical synthesis and analysis equipment, which were not available in-house at the company. In return, Zaifman adds, he benefited from numerous insights gained whilst working with AlCana employees, who have many years of experience making novel lipid structures used in lipid nanoparticles for clinical applications.

“I have benefited most from the interdisciplinary nature of this project, which has necessitated communication between researchers with backgrounds in molecular biology, biochemistry, pharmacology and synthetic chemistry".  Zaifman adds, "This is a somewhat unusual practice in academia, while being fairly routine in the pharmaceutical industry.”

The collaboration also gave Zaifman a window into the way industry operates. “It was a real eye-opener to see how a company operates. It is very different from the academic experience, it was a new experience for me. Things like communications, project goals, and deadlines are approached very differently in an industry setting.”