Pact follows recent Zymeworks agreements with Big Pharma that could yield US4.4 billion

June 24, 2016 | By: Albert Van Santvoort |

“Being told you have cancer is a very scary and shocking experience, no one can really prepare us for it.”That was how Betty Lam, began her story.

Lam, a cancer survivor, was speaking on June 24 to a group of life science industry leaders including CEOs, vice presidents and provincial government officials.

The Vancouver biotech company Zymeworks Inc. was announcing a new research partnership with the BC Cancer Agency and the University of Victoria to find treatments for people such as Lam, who have been personally affected by cancer.

Zymeworks has been forging a lot of partnerships of late. In April, it announced a deal with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline that could be worth US$908 million. Combined with other partnerships, Zymeworks could eventually yield US$4.4 billion .

With cooperation from university researchers, Zymeworks has developed a way to help cells in tissues and organs better communicate and get a person’s immune system to assist when needed.

“By being able to improve cellular signalling you can amplify that message of, ‘We need help,’” said Zymeworks co-founder and CEO Ali Tehrani.

In order to target and destroy cancer cells and prevent the disease from spreading, proteins, called antibodies, need to connect to cancerous cells.

Zymeworks creates ways for these antibodies to better connect to cancer cells.

In 2015, Zymeworks first partnered with GlaxoSmithKline. This is just one example of how B.C. is becoming a more established player in the life science and biotech industry.

“We decided [to invest in Zymeworks] fundamentally because Zymeworks is the best at what they do,” said Stephen Martin, who is head of biopharm discovery at GlaxoSmithKline.

“We were looking for companies who are able to do some very particular, very high tech design work on antibodies. There are a number of companies that work in this space but Zymeworks are the smartest and they demonstrated that their technology works.”

Innovation from companies such as Zymeworks is establishing Vancouver as a major hub in the life science and biotech industries.

B.C. Minister of Advanced Education Andrew Wilkinson cited Zymeworks and companies like it as a reason why Vancouver is “leapfrogging” Toronto and the rest of Canada in this sector.

Tehrani said that he and Zymeworks have had a lot of pressure to move but he has no intention of leaving Canada’s Pacific coast. He added that he thinks Canada has a lot to offer the industry.

“We’ve had Nobel laureates such as Michael Smith here – I don’t know if most people even appreciate that or remember that,” said Tehrani.

“Its like Hollywood. How many people know Michael J. Fox is Canadian? How many people don’t know that Ryan Reynolds is Canadian? They watch Deadpool, but they don’t know that he’s Canadian. Similarly, we can act, we can also think and innovate.”