Dr Bowen Li and his team will use self-driving lab technology to synthesize lipids, test them automatically and use AI to predict which ones will be successful


Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us have heard of Messenger RNA or “mRNA” vaccines. But what many of us don’t know is that through the discovery process of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, the scientists’ findings fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system. These important discoveries have opened the door to use mRNA in other powerful ways, including cancer treatments.  

This is the potential Dr Bowen Li, assistant professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and his team is set to unlock.  

“We now know that mRNA is a very powerful medical treatment,” said Dr Li. “But we also know that we need better lipid nanoparticles, (LNPs)or LNPs, to get the mRNA treatments into the new target cells  in order for them to be effective. That’s what my team and I are working on.”

LNPs are the drug delivery vehicles which carry mRNA treatments to target cells, where they are absorbed and released. We can think of them as ships, crossing the ocean of the cell membrane, bringing treatment supplies to the people who need them on the target cell island. The question is, what kind of ship do you need to make the journey?

This is where self-driving lab (SDL) technology comes in. Dr Li will be using an SDL to synthesize lipids and test them automatically. Leveraging the available data, the AI model will make a prediction on which LNP will be successful in getting the mRNA past the cell membrane into the cell. The SDL will then create that LNP, test it, and feed the data back into the AI to start the process over again to find even more successful lipids.  

“Right now, without an SDL, researchers would have to synthesize and test new LNPs one by one,” said Dr Li. “This process would take months and even years to find a promising candidate. Using an SDL will liberate grad students from doing this tedious labour and allow them to use their talents for greater purposes.”

Dr Li received a 2023 Accelerate Translation Grant to support his work. Accelerate Translation Grants support accelerated discovery projects with clear commercialization goals and justified or demonstrated market potential, as well as the implementation or scaling of knowledge mobilization activities, training, and community engagement.

“We are getting results already,” said Dr Li. “What many people don’t realize is that it took scientists years of effort to develop the LNPs enabling COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. By using our SDL, we aim to streamline that process, and significantly shorten the timeline of developing and optimizing new LNPs for any target.”  

Dr Bo Wang of U of T's Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology,and Computer Science are not only aiming to make discoveries quickly, but to tackle some of the largest health challenges facing people today such as cancer.

There are also great commercialization opportunities for Dr Li’s work.  

“There are companies out there that have discovered great targets for mRNA therapies,” said Dr Li. “But they cannot find a desirable delivery tool from the current LNP toolbox. That’s where the commercialization potential is with our work. The great thing about SDLs is instead of investing millions of dollars and a few years to find out if one lipid delivery vehicle will work, we’re able to do it for a fraction of the price and in an accelerated timeframe. Our goal is to make it easier and cheaper for everyone to find and use the right LNPs in the delivery of the mRNA treatments that will make the more efficient and effective.”

The 2024 Accelerate Translation Grant applications will open in the spring of 2024.  


Acceleration Consortium

This piece was written by a member of the AC team

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