Meet the men behind Providence Therapeutics

Premier Pallister secures back up vaccine for Manitoba. Part of the manufacturing process to take place in Winnipeg.

By Dorothy Dobbie

Manitobans got very good news in mid February when Premier Brian Pallister announced that he had signed deal to secure “insurance” vaccinations from a Canadian firm, Providence Therapeutics. Not only is this firm Canadian, but it is also headquartered in the west, in Alberta.

The Providence story is an interesting one. Founder of the firm, Brad Sorenson, was in the business of developing an mNRA vaccine against cancer in a frantic pursuit spurred by his son’s stage four brain cancer. It has receded into remission, but the cancer is a constant threat to their lives and happiness, so Brad began looking for a cure. He started Providence Therapeutics to develop a personalized treatment for cancer by using messenger viruses to target cancer cells.

 Four years ago, after meeting Brad through a friend and hearing his story, the founding chair of Alberta Health, Ken Hughes, told him, “I think you are looking for a fellow traveller, not just an investor,” and so he became both. “I thought that by investing in Providence, I could do good and do well, but I was happy just to do good,” said Ken, who was looking for a way to make a meaningful contribution in private life.

Ken is an incorrigible optimist who sees the best in people and has made a substantial contribution to public life as a Member of Parliament from 1988 to 1993, the owner of a successful insurance business, then as a member of cabinet in the Alberta Legislature from 2012 to 2014 before stepping down and leaving public life.

Ken is most proud of his accomplishments as the founding chair of Alberta Health, so taking a role in the development of Providence was a natural step. Very soon Brad asked him to become chairman of the board for the company. Providence was rapidly moving forward with the cancer vaccine and was about to commence clinical trials when COVID-19 hit. Even though Brad and his team had been working frantically to find a vaccine against cancers, they had to stop the trials.

The decision to pivot was a natural. They already had the advanced technology. They understood the mechanics of working with viruses and they were small and nimble. Brad said, “The company immediately began work on the COVID-19 vaccine.” Brad felt compelled to switch to COVID-19 because he felt a moral obligation to do something.

 It took just four weeks to be ready to submit a proposal to government for a made-in-Canada vaccine following an early government outreach to Canadian manufacturers, and they were ready to go in April. Brad then sent a proposal to the Prime Minister, committing to produce 50 million doses by 2021. Then they waited. And waited. And waited.

 But despite initial encouragement from the federal government and a meeting on March 24, it took five months to get a response which finally arrived on August 17. Instead of the $35 million the firm asked for, the federal government offered just $4.7 million through the National Research Council. This despite shovelling five times that amount of money into a start up in Quebec, which is still busy constructing a building that is not expected to be completed until next July, whereas Providence is already in phase one clinical trials.

Recently, the Winnipeg Free Press ran a story quoting well-known contrarian Amir Attaran, professor in the faculty of law and the School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa, who claimed that it would be next to impossible for Providence to get volunteers for its human clinical trials, but this was never problem for Sorenson. Providence Therapeutics started human trials on Jan. 26 with 60 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 65. claimed that Providence was just a fantasy. He clearly hadn’t done his homework.

It is not like Providence is some wildcat working on its own out in the wilderness, either. Their scientific partners are in Toronto. They work with the University of Toronto, the Ontario Institute of Cancer research, and Sunnybrook Research Institute. Their staff have stellar credentials in biotechnology and research. Dr. Jarret Davis was teaching Moderna how to get their vaccine off the ground before he joined Providence. Dr. Patel is a clinical trial specialist who has worked extensively with health Canada. Early last year they had already generated neutralizing antibodies in animals, with the same technology that BioNTech and Moderna used.

“When we first approached the government, we were two months behind. We told them then that we could deliver five million doses of vaccine by mid-2021 if we were able to successfully complete human testing,” said Brad.

We’re no longer two months behind Moderna, we’re one year behind,” Brad told the press on January 21, 2021. “If we had received the $35 million, we would have finished at the same time as Moderna. Had we gotten that we wouldn’t be starting Phase 1 right now, we would be in Phase 3.”

Now a year behind, they plunge on because you never know what can happen and it is worth being safe rather than sorry. They are now capable of manufacturing in Canada, with the final step being fulfilled by Emergent BioSolutions in Winnipeg. Emergent will complete the fill and finish steps of the process, which is the transfer of the bulk vaccine to ten-dosage vials. Emergent is a billion-dollar international firm headquartered in Baltimore. Its Winnipeg facility is on the University of Manitoba campus.

“The deal with Manitoba allows us to start the manufacturing process we can begin to stockpile product in anticipation of approval by Health Canada,” said Ken Hughes. This is exactly what Moderna and Pfizer had done so they could ship at the earliest possible date. It is hoped that Health Canada will extend the same approval courtesies to Providence that it did to the offshore companies.

The Providence Researchers believe they will receive enough data by April to be able to move into phase two starting in May, pending approval of the vaccine.

Manitoba has invested $7.2 million in the vaccine with a non-refundable deposit too secure two million does by December 31 of this year. It is expected that COVID-19 will require booster shots as these viruses constantly mutate. We will be well positioned to respond quickly and efficiently to new threat posed by future vairiants.

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