VANCOUVER -- A Vancouver biotech company has, until now, remained relatively in the shadows in the fight against COVID-19.

“We very much have flown under the radar for a long time,” says Thomas Madden, the president and CEO of Acuitas Therapeutics.

The 25-person company operates in a building on the UBC campus. Since 2009, it has specialized in developing cutting-edge delivery systems for nucleic acid therapeutics based on lipid nanoparticles.

In simpler terms, Madden uses this analogy: “Imagine you wanted to buy a very fragile glass ornament online and have it delivered to your home. If you use the equivalent of the Acuitas delivery technology, the ornament would be carefully encapsulated in a carrier, it would be protected, no matter how rough the journey was to your home. It would find your home. It would open the front door by itself and let itself in, and then it would unwrap the package and leave your ornament in your front hallway.”

This delivery system has helped partners like BioNTech, a German company, develop a vaccine against COVID-19.

This week, BioNTech and American pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced encouraging human trial results.

The vaccine uses advanced messenger RNA technology, which causes the body to produce a protein that triggers an immune response.

This is different than a conventional vaccine that uses a “killed or attenuated virus” to produce that immune response.

But there are difficulties of using the mRNA on its own, Madden explains.

“If you inject just the naked mRNA by itself, it will be rapidly broken down in the body, and it can't get into our cells, where it needs to be to work. Acuitas provides delivery technology that protects the mRNA after it’s administered and then carries it into the cells,” he says.

Madden says one of the greatest benefits of using an mRNA vaccine is it can be developed much faster than a traditional vaccine.

“The large advantage here is that we could potentially show their safety and effectiveness more quickly and make them available more quickly. In addition, scaling up their manufacture is, in some cases, a little bit more straightforward than for conventional vaccines,” he explains.

Acuitas’ delivery technology is also being used by other international partners in Europe, which are all hoping to bring an end to the global pandemic.

“It's nice that Canadian scientists and Canadian technology is being utilized and it's a critical component in these vaccines that are in development,” Madden says.

BioNTech and Pfizer will continue to study the new mRNA vaccine.

Madden says a vaccine likely won’t be ready until 2021.