Ottawa Changemakers: Ottawa scientist spearheads groundbreaking cancer treatments

Virica Biotech founders Ken Newport (left), Ella- Korets-Smith, and Dr. Jean-Simon Diallo (right). File photo
Editor's Note

Ottawa Changemakers is presented by Invest Ottawa and RBC Royal Bank.

If you’re in the field of oncology, you’ve likely heard of Dr. Jean-Simon Diallo, an internationally recognized scientist with expertise in biochemistry, molecular biology, cancer therapeutics and viral immunology.

Diallo is also the scientific founder and CEO of Ottawa-based company Virica Biotech, which helps companies manufacture viral medicines.

Founded in 2018, the company draws on a decade of Diallo’s research at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, where he investigated new therapies for cancer treatment using viruses. To increase the yield of anti-cancer viral medications, he invented a technology called “viral sensitizers.” 

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As might be expected, Diallo grew up with a love of science. His mom, a hematology laboratory technician, introduced him to biology at an early age. “Mentorship from parents and teachers had a big role to play here,” Diallo says.

The team at Virica Biotech, a company that helps companies manufacture viral medicines.

When his high school days wrapped up, Diallo chose the University of Ottawa for his undergraduate studies. While life took him out of Ottawa for a while, he eventually moved back to the city when his wife got a job with the federal government.

Around that time, Diallo decided to pursue post-doctoral studies with Dr. John Bell, also a well-known scientist and life sciences entrepreneur in Ottawa’s oncolytic virus space. 

Together, Bell and Diallo began infecting cancer cells with viruses. “(It) may sound crazy, but it’s actually a pretty fascinating thing,” Diallo says. “(Healthy cells) make a deal with the devil and become cancerous cells and that actually makes them very sensitive to infection most of the time.” 

Diallo developed a screening approach to test thousands of different molecules, looking at their ability to improve the virus’s infection rate of cancer cells. These molecules would eventually become Virica Biotech’s proprietary viral sensitizers. 

“We were actually the first to do that in the world,” Diallo says. 

He explains that viral sensitizers “boost” the ability of viruses to grow. In turn, the viruses kill the cancerous cells they infect.

While the treatment doesn’t work for every cancer patient, the discovery was a big step forward in cancer therapies, especially in 2007. “We were maybe a little bit ahead of our game, because viruses to treat cancer were not actually (seen as) a real therapeutic at the time,” Diallo says.

In 2009, the swine flu pandemic hit and Canada began running into vaccine shortages. Diallo realized his viral sensitizers could be used by other companies that were manufacturing vaccines. Where swine flu vaccines were producing a yield threefold lower than expected, Diallo’s viral sensitizers could boost the growth of anti-cancer viruses more than one thousandfold. 

By 2012, Diallo had started his own lab at The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. Ten years after that, he and his co-founders officially launched Virica Biotech, which today serves over 50 clients.

The company is currently raising series-B financing. “That’s going very well,” he says. “We’ve had very good response in the market, despite the economy being what it is.” 

Diallo says that finding investors was one of the biggest challenges he and his team came across when growing the business. “There are a lot of angel (investors) in Ottawa, but most of them are in the tech space,” he says. 

Last week, the company announced that it had landed a $790,000 grant from the Ontario Together Fund, which finances programs aimed at finding solutions to pandemic-related challenges. 

Diallo says that finding a wet lab that can handle chemicals and biological matter was another challenge. In 2021, the University of Ottawa Heart Institute opened its facilities for Virica Biotech. However, the company is expanding quickly and looking for a new space to grow. 

“I’m super appreciative of (the heart institute),” Diallo says. “That’s what universities and other institutions need to do, to foster innovation and startups in the city, especially on the biotech side.” 

Ottawa Changemakers highlights entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences who are making a difference in the city.

Invest Ottawa is Ottawa’s lead economic development agency for knowledge-based industries. Guided by a vision to be a globally recognized, innovative, inclusive and future-ready city, Invest Ottawa delivers programs and services that catalyze the growth and success of entrepreneurs and firms.

RBC Royal Bank is a global financial institution with a purpose-driven, principles-led approach to delivering leading performance and creating value for clients and communities.

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