Revolutionizing Medicine: An Interview with Hilda Au of Acuitas Therapeutics on creating a crucial component of the COVID-19 vaccine

We recently sat down with Hilda Au, Ph.D., a Research Scientist at Acuitas Therapeutics to discuss her experiences as a woman of colour in STEM and her groundbreaking work at the company that provided a crucial piece of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

Being a woman of colour, which challenges did you face to start a career in the industrial sector in Canada?

I have been very fortunate in that I have worked with culturally diverse teams since I started my career in the biotechnology sector as a woman of colour. From my training as a graduate student to my first industry position at Acuitas Therapeutics, I have been fortunate to work with colleagues who have embraced and respected me as an individual and scientist. However, I recognize not everyone has benefited from such supportive teams, and this motivates me to encourage others who are still developing in their careers.

Why did you apply to Acuitas Therapeutics? What was appealing to you?

During my graduate studies, I received training as an RNA biochemist. Somewhat fortuitously, I worked across the hall from the lab of Dr. Pieter Cullis, a pioneer in the lipid nanoparticle space, and had many opportunities to hear about his lab’s exciting research through various departmental seminars. When I found out about the career opportunity at Acuitas, I was immediately drawn to the company’s research on lipid nanoparticles for systemic delivery of nucleic acid therapeutics. I was excited about the prospect of this technology to revolutionize medicine and wanted to contribute to this company’s research program.

Now you are part of the Acuitas Therapeutics team, what do you like the most about working there?

The aspect I appreciate most about working at Acuitas is a highly collaborative environment. There are many opportunities for collaboration across functional groups, where we can learn from colleagues from diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise. We are encouraged to seek training through external workshops and courses to develop our technical and professional skills.

Acuitas also has an excellent company culture where colleagues are respectful, supportive, encouraging and genuinely care for one another. Employees also have a good rapport with management, which helps us feel valued as members of the team. Management is often intentional about holding open brainstorming sessions on matters that are important to the team and is receptive to the feedback that is provided. At the start of BC’s lockdown, the management team proactively implemented biweekly company-wide meetings as a forum for us to remain socially connected with others in the company. I think that initiative speaks volumes about how highly the management team regards the physical and emotional well-being of the employees as we navigated uncertain times together.

Tell us about the research you do at Acuitas Therapeutics? What is the future scope of this project? And how does it align to be helpful for the public?

As a part of the Preclinical group at Acuitas, we play an essential role in evaluating the activity and tolerability of novel lipid nanoparticle (LNP) formulations in various in vivo models. The results of the preclinical studies help inform our Chemistry and Formulation Development groups on how to optimize the design of next-generation lipids or formulation compositions to ultimately improve the efficacy of Acuitas’ LNP technology. There are significant implications in our area of research. The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a light on mRNA-LNP technology and real-world data supporting the efficacy of the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines has demonstrated its utility and versatility in fighting emerging infectious diseases. Acuitas’ continual commitment to improving the efficacy, safety and tolerability of our technology will be fundamental in supporting the use of mRNA-LNP technology for other therapeutic applications, including cancer vaccines, protein replacement therapy and genome editing for the treatment of genetic diseases.

Intracellular Delivery of Nucleic Acid Therapeutics:
– Loss of PEG-lipid from the LNP surface allows binding of ApoE
– In organs/tissues with fenestrated capillaries LNP migrate into the interstitial space
– ApoE bound to LNP binds to cell surface receptors triggering endocytosis

There is a specific platform that Acuitas Therapeutics is using to deliver mRNA into the cells. In simple analogy:

Imagine that you want to buy an exceptionally fragile glass ornament online and you would like to have it delivered to your home. If you used the equivalent of the Acuitas delivery technology, we would pack the ornament inside our carrier to shield it. No matter how bumpy or rough the journey was, our delivery technology would make sure that the ornament was protected. Our carrier would find your house, open the front door by itself, let itself in, unwrap your glass ornament, and leave it in the front hallway for you to pick up.

Being a scientist in a company, what are your future plans? Would you like to proceed in the industrial side or move to seek an academic position like an assistant professor?

My plan is to continue to further develop my career in the biotechnology sector. I feel that there are still many areas in which I can grow professionally, and I look forward to opportunities to become cross-trained in areas that are outside my field of expertise. However, I think there will always be a part of me that misses basic scientific research. During my graduate training in a basic research laboratory, I developed a deep appreciation for curiosity-driven research that aims to understand the mechanisms of fundamental physiological processes. There is something very fulfilling about conducting research simply with the aim to advance the frontiers of knowledge – and it is from these efforts that some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs have been made.

Please tell us about the moment in your life when you felt very accomplished and also about the moment when you felt that you were being challenged. How did you deal with it?

I think many individuals who have gone through graduate training can attest to how intellectually and emotionally challenging the process can be. I recall a period in the earlier years of my training in which I felt extremely inadequate and questioned my motivation and decision to continue pursuing graduate studies. I had encountered an obstacle in the assay I was establishing, and I was frustrated with myself and dissatisfied with the progress of my thesis project. I think what ultimately helped me overcome this emotional hurdle was the support network that I had. Besides my family, I am thankful I had supportive colleagues with who I was able to share my struggles with, and a supervisor who advocated for my success.

I felt most accomplished after completion of my Ph.D. degree, as it was the culmination of many years of hard work, dedication and perseverance.

Any messages you would share with the next generation of immigrant/women of colour students?

As an immigrant and woman of colour, I think it is important to embrace our identities and recognize that we have a lot to offer due to our unique experiences. Women in science should be prepared to share these experiences with others.

Acuitas Therapeutics is a proud sponsor of the SCWIST Science Symposium, an opportunity for female undergraduate and graduate students across Canada to receive recognition for their often-overlooked contributions to their fields.