How Acorn has joined the fight against COVID-19

The world is currently in the midst of the worst pandemic of the 21st century. SARS-CoV-2 has disrupted the lives of billions of people around the world and brought entire economies to a halt. These uncertain times demand unprecedented cooperation between governments, private organizations, and civil society. Very early on, we at Acorn raised our hands and joined the fight against COVID-19. We remain committed to supporting the efforts to beat this disease and its long-term consequences.

The sudden appearance and quick spread of a new disease is something that humanity has had to face at semiregular intervals throughout history. The last time we confronted a challenge of this magnitude was more than 50 years ago, during the 1968 Pandemic (H3N2 virus). The estimated number of deaths during that pandemic was 1 million. At the time of writing, the coronavirus pandemic has reached half of that number and it is still far from over.

Coming together to fight a common enemy

Unfortunately, the spread of infectious diseases on a global scale is occurring more often than before. In an increasingly integrated world, the potential for diseases to expand across borders is enormous. At the same time, crises like these often bring out the best in our societies. Different groups in government, academia, and the private sector, which had not cooperated before, have come together to create solutions against COVID-19.

Acorn Biolabs Team in Toronto meeting over Zoom to adap to COVID19 pandemic
Our virtual team meetings in this new normal help us continue to serve our clients, our employees, and our community.

The first thing that Acorn did at the onset of this crisis was to get protective equipment to the hands of frontline workers. This has proven to be vital in stopping the spread from patient to patient. We also quickly engaged with the Canadian government to lend our ISO certified lab for diagnostic testing. This effort is still ongoing.

The role of preventative healthcare in fighting pandemics

Knowledge is power. This is especially true in healthcare. While a vaccine may still be months or even years away from development and distribution at a global scale, analytics can make a difference. Data obtained through testing can help implement effective measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. It also allows for a more effective allocation of resources. 

There are differences in the way individuals respond to contracting the virus depending on a number of factors, not just age. These are factors that can be analyzed in order to determine who is predisposed to develop more severe symptoms. If individuals know they have comorbidities or other issues that make them more susceptible to experiencing severe symptoms, they can plan accordingly. This means either avoiding high-risk situations or taking quicker action at the first indication of infection.

This information can be very useful for healthcare workers as well. It empowers them to direct their resources and attention to people that they know will need intensive care immediately. As a consequence, health care systems around the world can better manage the burden of infection, avoiding collapse. This is what makes the preventative and predictive element so important. At Acorn, we are developing tools to predict an individual’s response to infection and risk for severe and life-threatening symptoms. Getting ahead of infections and providing individuals with the best tools to overcome the disease has the potential to save lives.

What comes after the pandemic

Once we are past the phase of containment of the virus, we must look into the long-term implications for those who have contracted COVID-19. There have been reports of different conditions manifesting once people have recovered from the disease. The New York Times has reported that approximately 90 percent of patients who required ventilators develop acute kidney injury. There is also a risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome. That is where tissue engineering has an opportunity to help fight COVID-19.

At Acorn, we are also focusing on these long-term consequences. There is potential for the development of cell-based treatments to help those who are dealing with second-order implications of having COVID-19. We are working to prepare people to take advantage of these treatments by providing them with the cellular material they will need.

Managing and eventually solving this crisis will require a multifactor approach. Collaboration between different sectors has proven essential and it must continue. Building on this will allow us to react more quickly and effectively when this eventually happens again. Investing in preventative medicine and cell-based therapies will put us in a much more favorable position moving forward. We are committed to this goal.

If you are looking to partner on COVID-19 solutions, please contact us at covid@acorn.me.

Meet Acorn Biolabs Co-Founders

Discover How They Started Acorn Biolabs and What it Means to Them

What was the genesis for Acorn Biolabs?

Dr. Drew Taylor, Ph.D., MSc – Co-Founder and CEO

I met Steven and Patrick while I was Chief Science Officer with EpicCapital. At that time I was advising emerging companies in the health and biotech space and meeting both of them was a very natural connection for me due to my experience in medicine.

Prior to EpicCapital I had been involved with a team that was investigating cell therapy as a replacement for surgically-implanting mechanical knees in patients. We were removing patients’ cells from their bodies, reprogramming them into cells that would grow into their own human cartilage and re-inserting them into patients – avoiding the need to implant mechanical knees. While it was an incredibly rewarding experience, I also got to see first hand the great disappointment in patients who were older and ageing trying to leverage this cell therapy versus younger patients. It seemed that the younger the patient the higher the success rates.

Steven ten Holder, Co-Founder and CIO

At a very young age, I had a personal obsession with human longevity. In my high school years I became convinced by the idea that science could, in my lifetime, have a real impact on improving how long people lived. Since then I’ve constantly been exploring ideas, tinkering with the science and developing skills relevant to the challenges posed by human longevity. Earlier in my career than I had expected a powerful idea presented itself that I couldn’t ignore. That idea has grown to become what Acorn is today.

Patrick Pumputis, MSc – Co-Founder and CSO

I met Steven in the lab at the University of Waterloo. He had been working in labs supporting some researchers who needed cells divided out and preserved for research. I had been working in the area of cellular and molecular biology and had come to really be drawn to Steven’s passion for healthspan and longevity.

In some of Steven’s early endeavours, I found myself side by side with him and that’s how our collaboration really began. My Masters was in cell nutrition and since he was looking at science solutions to healthspan, working together was a very natural evolution of our friendship.

When did you decide that you had something special with Acorn?

Drew – Meeting Patrick and Steven in many ways felt very much like serendipity as we compared notes: Together we quickly realized that Steven’s vision around cell division and technology for longevity; combined with Patrick’s focus on cell nutrition and preservation; with my background in emerging health technologies and biomedical engineering was a winning combination to create something that could truly change the way people thought about personal healthcare.

Why collecting cells from hair follicles?

Patrick – We very quickly realized that while the industry was rapidly finding more and more ways to leverage cell therapy as medical treatments – the problem was that traditional cell sources were incredibly invasive ways for consumers to collect cells. Drawing blood and even complicated and painful bone marrow collection services had to be done in clinics which meant they were expensive and often in remote locations. That ultimately kept cell therapy out of reach for many people.

Steven – What was also striking for us was that we saw this emerging market of people doing cheek-swabs using saliva cells to get DNA, ancestry information and basic health reports. So we knew that consumers were starting to understand the value of their cells and were quickly embracing the idea of collecting them. But as scientists we knew that saliva cells were dead cells and that they would have no therapeutic value to a patient when faced with an illness – nor could they be leverage for any meaningful genetic information.

With Drew’s support, we quickly landed on needing to find a less invasive cell source – one that could be collected at home much the way saliva cells could – but the idea was to keep cells alive in transport and to safely and securely bank them for future therapeutic use.

Drew – We spent a long time exploring different avenues and landing on hair follicles as the source was the ideal solution. Easy, accessible, pain-free and affordable collection protocols could be created along with the proprietary mechanism for transporting the live cells until they could be cryopreserved – that was our passion. And what it meant was the potential for accessible personalized healthcare for everyone.

Why science? When did you discover science as a path and what attracted you to it?

Drew – My father was a doctor, in fact, he went to medical school late in life only after a successful career as a baseball pitcher. As part of his baseball career, he was sent on tour in Vietnam and was struck with the passion for helping people and medicine from that very visit. Returning to Canada at the mature age of 35, he managed to enroll in medical school and spent the rest of his career using medicine to help people.

Growing up surrounded by that passion – you just can’t help but be influenced. I can recall more than once having to hop on a plane in the USA after a game for an overnight flight to Toronto to write an exam and then go back to baseball.

Patrick – I grew up magnifying everything! I was deeply interested in microscopes and for many years – I probably viewed much of the world around me in microscopes…bugs, plants, anything I could find I would take under the microscope. I also had great influences around me early in life that encouraged science and allowed my playgrounds to be science fairs and projects – one in particular where I harnessed the power of the sun at the ripe age of 11! I was especially fortunate to have a grandmother who was very encouraging of my love of science and kept feeding it.

I still am today a strong believer in the role that education and upbringing can have at a very young age in the youth of today to encourage and support science innovation. I believe that the idea of “play” for kids – if tied to science “fun” – can be an incredibly strong motivator for kids to develop a passion for science.

Steven – The lightbulb for me went off equally early. Initially drawn to the philosophy around death and life, I explored life sciences at university. I looked at the brain as a way to improve lifespan but I also explored gene therapy as an area of study too. But it was really when I discovered the iGEM organization (a university competition hosted by MIT on genetic engineering) that I really found my passion.

iGEM exposed me to this whole environment of research and innovation around life sciences, and I knew I had found a great place that would ultimately end up motivating me to build Acorn.

What excites you most about the opportunities that Acorn presents?

Drew – There is such excitement around advancements in cell therapy today – not a day goes by that we don’t hear about science solving yet another health challenge with our own human cells. But my biggest worry is that people are not paying enough attention to this space, and are getting confused by some of the mixed messages and that they will end up letting the opportunity slip away from them. Then suddenly, in 5 or 10 years when they develop an illness that can absolutely be cured with cell therapy, finding out that their cells are no longer able to be used as a viable resource due to age and degeneration.

I really get excited about the opportunity that Acorn has to educate and inform this space on the immense value our younger cells could have. Your cells at 20 are better than they will be at 30 but similarly, your cells at 40 or 50 years old are much more viable than they are at 60 or 70 years old.

Patrick – Discoveries like IPSCs and CRISPR have really given us an immense opportunity as biologists, scientists and the entire medical community to pay attention to our cells.

Very recently there was a child in Germany diagnosed with Epidermolysis Bullosa (butterfly skin). Doctors used a piece of the child’s no affected skin and grew it in a lab. Using genetic editing techniques to reprogram the cells, they grafted the new cells back onto him – and now he is recovering from his illness. That’s what excites me – how real the opportunity really is. Most often, biologists find career paths in science and research on things that they may never see materialize in their lifetime.

Our work at Acorn is different in that we have an opportunity as scientists today, and in our lifetime to have a material impact on personal healthcare.

Steven – For me, Acorn is about doing something significant for human healthspan. I know that in my lifetime if we apply our energy and resources to life sciences we can absolutely solve some of the biggest health challenges of our time. Spending all day contributing to something as significant as helping to eradicate disease, and enabling people to take control of their own health – that is the greatest job in the world.

We have created a company and a consumer health service that is going to forever change how we all think about our personal healthcare. And that’s pretty amazing.