Meet biotechnological entrepreneur, Bert Friesen (BSc Hons.’69, MSc ’71, PhD ’81) who helped eliminate Rh disease

Recipient of the 2019 Faculty of Science Honoured Alumni Awards

When Bert Friesen (BSc Hons.’69, MSc ’71, PhD ’81) looks back over his career as a chemist and entrepreneur, he can do so with a great deal of pride, knowing that his most influential research virtually eliminated a once-deadly blood-borne condition. Known as Rh disease, the disorder occurs when an Rh-negative mother develops antibodies to her baby’s Rh-positive blood.

The rhesus blood type was first discovered in 1937, with the first recorded case of Rh disease occurring in 1939. Initial treatments included blood transfusion of the baby post-delivery or blood transfusion in the womb. However, the mortality rates in newborns were still relatively high in the 1940s and ‘50s:  4.2 deaths for every 1,000 live births worldwide. Of those who did survive, twenty per cent suffered permanent brain damage. It wasn’t until the production and use of Rh Immune Globulin that the disease was prevented altogether, to the point where many nowadays have no knowledge of the threat it once posed.

Friesen, who spent both his personal and professional life seeking to improve the lives of others, is thankful to have had the opportunity to develop the Rh Immune Globulin. His initial research focused on developing a column ion exchange technology for production of a purer and more suitable form of the drug. Named WinRho (for the city where it was created and the blood type associated with Rh disease), its’ development was just the beginning of Friesen’s extremely successful career in the biotechnology industry, although he admits that he didn’t initially understand the full influence of what he had helped to create:

“It was when women shared with me the impact WinRho had on their lives in protecting their babies that I better understood the significance of our work. WinRho also touched our family in a personal way when my wife, Lee, was one of the clinical trial patients and our three daughters each received WinRho to protect our nine grandchildren.”

Growing up in the village of Kane, Manitoba, Friesen learned the value of hard work and planning ahead when his father gave him and each of his five siblings the income from an acre of farmland as an allowance to manage as they saw fit. For the 10-year-old Friesen, it was an early introduction to the concepts he would use later on in his role as a biotechnological entrepreneur.

It wasn’t until a few years later in high school that he discovered an aptitude for chemistry, which eventually led him to attend the U of M to obtain his BSc Hons in 1969. From there, Friesen went on to earn his MSc in 1971, at which point he was recruited by Dr. Bruce Chown, a prominent Winnipeg physician and UofM faculty member. Chown was looking for a new method for making an Rh Immune Globulin, and felt he needed a protein chemist to develop such a substance. So it was that at just 23 years of age, Friesen was enlisted to the task. He soon found himself the first full-time employee (later President) of the Winnipeg Rh Institute.

To this day, Friesen cites Chown as his most influential and favourite mentor:

“He taught/mentored me on many things, but one which I think influenced me most was his confidence that we in Winnipeg can do anything as well as anyone in the world. He thought we could and should be the best in whatever we undertake.”

It was with that mindset that the young Friesen developed WinRho, one of Canada’s first successful biotech products. Thanks to the vaccine, perinatal mortality rates dropped to less than 1 per 3 years in the 1990s, from rates of 100 per year in the 1940s.This work eventually led to the creation of a large-scale manufacturing facility which, in 1980, became the cornerstone of the U of M Smart Park. Today you can drive through the area and see a street sign labelled “Rh Way”, a nod to Friesen and his pioneering efforts.

In 1984, Friesen founded ABI Biotechnology, the first profitable biotech company in Canada. In fact, he is generally regarded as the as the “founding father” of the biotechnology industry in Manitoba. The Winnipeg Rh Institute and ABI Biotechnology were merged in 1990, coming under the control of Apotex Inc. just a year later. At that point, the two organizations became known as Cangene Corporation and Apotex Fermentation Inc.

Never one to sit idle, Friesen went on to start several more biotech firms, including Novopharm Biotech, Viventia Biotech, Genesys Pharma Inc., Genesys Venture Inc., Mantex Biotech, DiaMedica Inc., Miraculins Inc., Kane Biotech Inc., CanAm Bioresearch Inc., Medicure Inc., GVI Clinical Development Solutions Inc., Marsala Biotech Inc., Koff Pharma Inc., Waverley Pharma Inc., etc. In 1988, he was the founding board chair of the Canadian biotech association, now known as BIOTECanada.

With a life devoted to helping others, Friesen has received a goodly share of awards and honours. He was named a Distinguished Alumni by the UofM, was awarded the Order of Manitoba and was given the BIOTECanada Gold Leaf Award for Industry Leadership.

As the current CEO of Medicure, Inc., a Winnipeg-based cardiovascular drug discovery and development company, Friesen loves what he does for a living. After forty years in the business of biotechnology, he takes great satisfaction in mentoring other entrepreneurs, as well as serving on boards for non-profits such as Winnipeg Mennonite Seniors Care Inc. and Mennonite Economic Development Associates. Most important of all to Friesen is his growing family, which includes nine grandchildren. It’s a good life, filled with incredible opportunities, for which Friesen is truly grateful.

“[R]eflecting over 40 years after having led the development and set up of the commercial production of WinRho, it is incredibly satisfying to have been able to make a difference and have a career I love.”

By Jo Davies

2019 Faculty of Science Alumni Awards Event

Recognizing graduates who have made remarkable contributions to discovering the unknown, inventing the future, and advancing the well-being of society.

January, 31, 2019
Marshall McLuhan Hall (University Centre)
University of Manitoba, Fort Garry Campus
3:30 pm- 5:00 pm

The event includes a Careers in Science Panel Discussion and Q&A where our distinguished guests will share their experiences and offer advice to students about selecting areas of study, navigating career paths, and using their degrees in sometimes unconventional ways.

A reception will follow. Everyone is welcome to attend.

Feb 7, 2019