Nafiseh Nafissi

Nafiseh Nafissi
MSc ’09, PhD ’13
> Executive vice-president of research and development, Mediphage Bioceuticals

In the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases in fall 2020, hopeful news emerged: Vaccine trials by several large drug makers showed promise. 

It sparked widespread optimism for a vaccine that might bring the pandemic to heel in 2021. 

But what about the next pandemic? That’s what Nafiseh Nafissi (MSc ’09, PhD ’13), executive vice-president of research and development at Mediphage Bioceuticals, and her colleagues are thinking about. 

Mediphage, a company founded by Waterloo School of Pharmacy Professor Roderick Slavcev, is developing a universal vaccine platform based on “ministring DNA” technology that creates synthetic virus-like particles to generate an effective immune response in people.  

Since these ministring DNA particles do not contain bacterial sequences, and cannot form a virus capable of replication, Nafissi says they will be safer than traditional vaccines, even for people who normally can’t be vaccinated because they are immunocompromised. 

Technology platform can be adapted for other coronaviruses 

More importantly, this technology can easily be adapted to other coronaviruses and flu viruses as well.  

“It’s for future pandemics and other types of viral disorders,” Nafissi says. “It’s not just one product that we are developing. It's a platform technology.” 

A new vaccine platform could provide a faster and better response to future pandemics, she adds. The technology Mediphage is working on is “redosable,” meaning that the vaccine can be administered more than once, and the immune response should be long lasting, she adds.  

“In terms of global impact, this would be a very safe and affordable technology. More importantly, unlike traditional vaccine products, ministring DNA does not need to be kept in cold storage. Our product is stable at room temperature, which makes it much more accessible to people in remote parts of the world where cold storage facilities may not be available.” 

Small startup can be more innovative than large vaccine companies 

A small startup like Mediphage has the flexibility to pursue a new vaccine platform, whereas bigger companies are focused on adapting technology that is proven and has worked well in the past, Nafissi says.  

“They need to scale up the vaccine and bring it to market as quickly as possible in response to global needs. That is really great, but we always need to think about alternative approaches and novel technologies to prepare for future pandemics.” Nafissi says.  

Mediphage is now partnering with several academic institutions in the United States and Canada with the goal of starting animal trials.  

“This part of the study needs to be done with partners in academia who are experts in vaccine design, immunology and epidemiology, to determine the right animal models for this type of vaccine,” Nafissi says. “We are optimizing the protocols and getting all the information about the type and size of the animal models, the specific routes of injection and other elements.” 

A nasal spray vaccine 

Mediphage is also looking at developing this technology as a nasal spray. “In the past few months, we have been working to find the device companies, the right manufacturing companies, and start testing these materials,” Nafissi says. 

This technology evolved from research Nafissi was doing for her PhD at Waterloo. She and Slavcev, her PhD supervisor, had been developing the DNA ministring technology platform to combat chronic and genetic disorders such as Stargardt’s disease, which causes vision loss in children.  

But “the platform is modular, so we can very quickly switch it to different applications,” Nafissi says. When COVID-19 hit, they quickly pivoted to adapting it to coronaviruses. 

Nafissi says her work at Mediphage keeps her in contact with Waterloo faculty across many departments, from chemical engineering to biology and the School of Pharmacy. “We can always count on the support of the faculty at Waterloo,” she says. 

Mediphage Bioceuticals has been listed by StartUs Insights as one of the top five gene therapy companies impacting the pharma sector. As a University of Waterloo spinoff company, it hopes to demonstrate that Waterloo is not just an IT powerhouse but can and will also lead future of medical technology, Nafissi says. 

By allowing researchers to own what they create, Waterloo is a tremendous launchpad for startup companies like Mediphage, Nafissi says. “The fact that we see all these spin-off companies shows the strength of Waterloo in creating the future scientists and the future leaders in industry,” Nafissi says.