Alumni on the cusp of revolutionizing medical treatment to fight cancer

Merchants-photoWestern Engineering’s mission is to produce graduates who are global citizens whose education and leadership serve the public good. Dr. Fahar Merchant, PhD’ 87 and his wife Rosemina, MESc’85 have dedicated the last 30 years of their careers to making a positive impact in the world. 

The couple has co-founded or led several companies in the biomedical space including Protox Therapeutics Inc. where they transitioned a pre-clinical startup to a Phase 3 ready uro-oncology company; IntelliGene Expressions Inc., a biologics cGMP compliant CDMO; and Avicenna Medica Inc., a clinical-stage oncology company which they sold to KS Biomedix.  

Today, Dr. Merchant and his wife are co-founders of Medicenna - a clinical-stage immunotherapy company that engineers novel, powerful and proprietary interleukins they call Superkines. By leveraging their Superkine Platform, they are able to modulate, fine-tune or amplify the immune system to tackle the most challenging diseases, including a broad range of cancers with tremendous unmet needs.  

We caught up with the Merchants to learn about their work in the biomedical space, some highlights of their careers and advice they can share for the next generation of leaders entering the engineering field. 

What inspired you (both) to pursue (biochemical) engineering and how has your Western experience shaped your careers?  

Several decades ago, Nina and I met when we were undergraduate students in Birmingham, UK, where we studied pharmacology and biochemistry. That was our initial focus. We started our careers in the biological sciences and then suddenly realized the benefit of chemical engineering. It was a new window into life sciences and how we could potentially merge engineering knowledge into biotechnology. We decided to pursue graduate studies and were very impressed with Western University and the work being done by Professors Margaritis and Kosaric. We applied and were able to continue the same type of projects we started in the UK.  

At Western, we served as Teaching Assistants and having learned everything about fermenters, and manufacturing facilities we trained graduate students to use the fermenters, how to troubleshoot, how to fix the equipment, and so on. This was a great experience. I earned a PhD in Biochemical Engineering while Rosemina earned a MESc in Biochemical Engineering. So, all that knowledge was very useful when we eventually built our own plant. Our company, IntelliGene Expressions Inc. was one of the fastest-growing companies in Canada and we put $90,000 of our money to start it and nine years later we sold it for 90 million dollars. 

Given your success as entrepreneurs and head of several companies, is there a particular venture that you are most proud of? 

I would say, our first company - IntelliGene Expressions Inc. We were transitioning from fuel ethanol to biopharmaceutical for cancer research. We had no experience with running a business and took a big personal risk, especially with the odds of success for biotech companies being less then 5 percent. It was hard work. It taught us how to manage money, communicate the story, focus on the needs of our clients, how to interface with others, and how to build and grow a company.  Medicenna, on the other hand has the potential to change the cancer treatment paradigm and we are excited that we, for the first time, built a Nasdaq and TSX listed public company, which brings a whole new set of challenges. 

With the recent advancements of one of your products, the MDNA11 in clinical trials, can you explain how it works and what makes it different from other engineered molecules on the market for treating cancer cells? 

As you know, we have mutations going on in our bodies all the time. Those mutations can become aberrant cells that generate in the body and become cancer cells, but they are generally taken care of by our immune system. Eventually, you get to a stage where the immune system is weakened, particularly as you age. Therefore, once you get cancer, at that point your immune system is completely exhausted and you are unable to fight off cancer. At that stage you try and use chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, all those different approaches to remove the cancer. The cancer cells often recruit regulatory T cells which are protecting our bodies and signal them to protect it as well.  

MDNA11 is a molecule that belongs to a class of molecules called interleukins and the one that we are working with is interleukin two (IL-2). This is a molecule that's responsible for stimulating different types of immune cells.  One set of immune cells, called effector immune cells (Teffs), attacks the cancer and the other set, called Tregs, protects so that these effector immune cells don't attack your organs. Cancer cells recruit the Tregs to protect themselves which creates a dilemma.  

Our work therefore addresses barriers that prevent the immune system from eliminating the tumor. One of these barriers is the tumour-supporting microenvironment which forms a “cancer swamp” that is able to hide the tumor from the immune system. As long as you have this very insidious cancer swamp, it will be challenging to get to the tumour and improve cure rates.  

So, you get into this horrible imbalance where tumour cells now have protection. They can grow without our immune system being able to fight it off. Through our work, we took IL-2 which is present in naturally present in all of us and changed it in such a way that it does not stimulate Treg cells which are protecting the tumour. Instead, we stimulate only those immune cells (Teffs) that are going to attack the tumour. 

This initial design of the molecule came from a lab at Stanford University. We licensed the technology from Stanford, so we have exclusive worldwide rights on this program and essentially are now in the clinic. The data from animal studies look promising and early human data are encouraging, although we are only in early stages of human clinical trials being conducted in Canada, Australia, and the United States. 

There is growing interest in the field of Immune-Oncology (IO) therapy for cancer treatment and Bio Engineering. What do you think will be the next big steps to advance the industry forward?  

You might have heard of studies where the patient’s blood is withdrawn and the immune cells are isolated. The immune cells are then engineered and injected back into the body. However, this process takes several weeks before the patient can receive the treatment and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for each patient. While this works for some patients the waiting period and costs are prohibitive. 

Instead of harvesting immune cells, we believe our drug can accomplish the same without the patient having to wait for weeks or months before they get treatment. Additionally, we can simultaneously modulate the activity of many different types of immune cells to get the best outcome for the patient at a much lower cost to the healthcare system.  

What advice do you have for students considering and pursuing an engineering education?   

The scientific and engineering fields are now beginning to overlap along with AI.  I would say that anybody who's pursuing an engineering degree, should look at different options in life sciences. Integrating engineering with human biology can develop and design new medical devices for treating or diagnosing patients with different kinds of diseases. 

As a chemical engineer, you could incorporate life sciences to cost effectively manufacture drugs and with AI, one could design better drugs which are more efficacious and safer.   

What is your most cherished memory from your time at Western? 

I think the happiest moments were when we were teaching assistants. We would work with these knowledge hungry undergraduates who had never seen a fermenter before. Along the way we have developed friendships. Some are now working in the pharmaceutical industry and we’re so proud to see what they have accomplished. The faculty was fantastic. We had amazing times with Professors Margaritis and Kosaric. They were amazing mentors.