When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, two University research teams, together with two Waterloo spinoff companies, quickly focused their resources on fighting the new coronavirus.
One research group is working with Mediphage Bioceuticals developing a new type of DNA vaccine for a broad range of coronavirus infections. The other group is working with DarwinAI on a COVID-19 AI screening tool for faster diagnosis.
Both companies are having a major impact. Hospitals around the world are leveraging the DarwinAI screening tool, COVID-Net, to better manage the pandemic. The Mediphage team is testing its prophylactic and therapeutic vaccine and hopes to have it in the first stage of clinical trials early next year.
Nafiseh Nafissi (MSc ’09, PhD ’13), vice-president of research and development at Mediphage Bioceuticals, is part of the team working on the new type of DNA vaccine. The company, founded by Waterloo School of Pharmacy Professor Roderick Slavcev, is developing a novel method to stimulate the body’s immune response against coronaviruses through synthetic infection.
Nafissi says the work at Mediphage has “potential to revolutionize the future of medicine,” which is “enormously exciting.”
Sheldon Fernandez (BASc ’01) is chief executive officer at DarwinAI, a spinoff developing the COVID-19 screening tool based on the research of the company’s co-founder Alexander Wong, a Waterloo professor of Systems Design Engineering and Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence. While a swab test can take days or weeks to process, chest x-rays are faster and relatively inexpensive, helping doctors more quickly diagnose and triage probable COVID-19 cases.
Humanitarian mindset shapes technology
For Fernandez and Nafissi, finding purpose and meaning in their work comes naturally.
After getting his computer engineering degree in 2001, Fernandez joined his Waterloo roommate Alim Somani (BASc ’01) as a co-founder of a successful software development company, Infusion, which was acquired by global technology firm Avanade in 2017.
But “humanitarian sensitivities” imbued Fernandez with additional purpose. During his undergrad, a research apprenticeship at Waterloo’s School of Optometry and Vision Science inspired the development of an infrared technique for the early detection of eye problems in young children. “Waterloo professors help you realize that technology is not just the sum of its technical parts,” he says.
Fernandez also studied theology at Conrad Grebel University College and obtained his master’s degree in theology at the University of Toronto. This was proceeded by humanitarian work in Kenya under the auspices of the African Jesuits Aids Network. He also had professional training in genocide studies at the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies at Concordia University.
“These experiences gave me a sense of moral responsibility that has stayed with me since,” Fernandez says.
Waterloo professors help you realize that technology is not just the sum of its technical parts.
Meanwhile, Nafissi’s journey to serving on the Mediphage Bioceuticals executive management team started in Iran. With an undergraduate degree in microbiology and molecular biology from Tehran University, she was hired at the Pasteur Institute of Iran. There she worked with teams investigating the bacteria that cause gastric ulcers and cancers. She also worked on national mutation screening for hemophilia, a genetic blood-clotting disorder. These experiences inspired Nafissi to continue pursuing a career that would help her improve patients’ quality of life.
After her husband, Mohammad Eram (PhD ’13), received offers from several prestigious universities around the world, they chose Waterloo because of its global research reputation and entrepreneurial culture. Eram is now a senior scientist and project leader at Dalriada Drug Discovery in Mississauga, Ont.
A role model for women pursuing science
Nafissi, meanwhile completed her master’s degree in biology at Waterloo but for her PhD, she became fascinated by Slavcev’s work on genetic therapies. Her research focused on developing the DNA ministring technology platform and its applications to help combat chronic and genetic disorders such as Stargardt’s disease, which causes vision loss in children. “Ministring DNA technology allows for personalized genetic medicines that are safe, effective and accessible for patients worldwide. As a versatile platform, ministring DNA can address a broad range of medical problems and empower innovative solutions,” Nafissi says.
After the pandemic hit, Mediphage switched to using the DNA ministrings to generate “virus-like particles” to stimulate the body’s immune responses against coronaviruses.
DarwinAI also quickly pivoted in the pandemic. Co-founded by Wong and Waterloo research professor Mohammad Shafiee (PhD ’17), the company specializes in solving the “black box” problem to illuminate an AI system’s decision-making processes. But since Wong had already done considerable work in using AI to diagnose medical conditions from scans of patients’ lungs, it took only a week to release COVID-Net, a lung-screening tool to augment the nose and throat swab tests used in detection of COVID-19.
The tool is entirely open-sourced and freely available to the world. Fernandez says that seemed like the “Canadian” thing to do amidst the acute challenges brought on by the pandemic. Researchers have since contributed tens of thousands of images to the database to help improve the AI training.
Nafissi also finds purpose in being a role model for women in the sciences. “This is a country where women can do everything and anything, there are no limitations.”
Both Nafissi and Fernandez feel privileged by their Waterloo education and find purpose in giving back. “I was inspired by great teachers and mentors at Waterloo and I owe it to this education system to do something good,” Nafissi says.
Future-Ready Talent Framework
Nafiseh Nafissi worked on a tech platform during her Waterloo PhD studies. Now she’s leading research at a spinoff company, using her doctoral research to develop a DNA vaccine to be used against COVID-19 and other coronavirus infections.