New immune risk drug test opens up pharma sector

A Eurostars project partnership has blossomed into an innovative startup, which aims to make the pre-clinical testing of drugs for immune response risks affordable and straightforward. This could help open up the pharmaceutical market to smaller European pharma firms, and ensure that medicines that reach the market do not have unexpected side effects.

The Eurostars COMPIT project developed an in vitro platform that enables the preclinical study of drug-induced adverse immune responses. The platform is targeted especially at pharma startups and SMEs who might not have in-house expertise or the resources to launch a major clinical trial. The success of the project led directly to the establishment of a startup, who intend to realise the commercial potential of their innovation. “I really believe that we met the right partner and started this company at the right moment,” says Eurostars COMPIT project coordinator Robert-Jan Lamers from Abundnz in the Netherlands.

Understanding side effects

The pharmaceutical sector is competitive, complex and costly. All medicines require rigorous testing before they can reach the market, and this can be an expensive business.

Another challenge is that findings from tests in vivo (with animals) cannot always be translated to humans. “This is one reason the sector is increasingly looking to replace animal testing with advanced in vitro testing,” says Lamers. “Using human cells in a lab allows pharma companies to carry out standard tests required from regulatory authorities and address an overlooked issue: the side effects of drugs in humans.”

Understanding how medicines can affect the human immune response system is an issue that is gaining attention. Lamers notes that there are drugs on the market that can help with e.g. heart disease, but that can cause other, less serious conditions as a side effect. “This is the result of secondary immune responses,” he explains. “If a drug damages tissue, then cell components can be released into the body and seen by the immune system as a danger. This triggers an immune response, and if this continues, it can result in an autoimmune disease.”

Affordable, accurate testing

These reasons drove the Eurostars COMPIT project consortium to develop an in vitro platform to test drugs for adverse immune responses. The project brought Abundnz together with UK immunology firm ImmunoSYS. The concept was to create a platform that would make pre-clinical drug trials affordable for pharma startups and SMEs.

The platform allows pharma companies to simulate human immune responses in a lab. Cells from kidneys, muscles, lungs, etc. are placed in simple culture. Specific drugs can be added to these different cell types to see if any damage occurs. The cells are then added to an in vitro immune system to spot any immune response.

“During the project, we were able to show that several drugs do indeed cause side effects that impact on the human immune response, and which can potentially lead to auto-immune diseases,” says Lamers. “We have been in discussions with the European Medicines Agency (EMA), and plan to meet with them later this year to discuss the project’s final results. They are very interested because the side effects of drugs is an important issue for them.”

Realising market potential

An important result of COMPIT has been the launch of a new company formed by project partners Abundnz and ImmunoSYS. The startup aims to build on the work carried out during the project, and to realise the commercial potential of the platform. Based in the UK, the company offers pharma companies a specialist immunology laboratory for immune risk and efficacy studies. “We are 50/50 shareholders,” says Lamers. “The company was launched during the project, but commercialisation really only started at the end of 2018.”

The company is based in Alderely Park near Manchester, which is also home to a number of other startups and pharma companies. “A lot of our clients are from the science park, but we also have customers in Belgium, Germany, France and the Netherlands,” says Lamers. “We are currently three people, but are expecting to expand.” Company sales are projected to hit 2 million British pounds by 2023.

Following completion of the COMPIT project, the company is visiting science parks around Europe and meeting with potential clients, often with the assistance of the Enterprise Europe Network. Lamers and his colleagues are also busy attending pharma conferences to share their project results and create interest in their innovation. “Immunology research is becoming an increasing focus for many biopharmaceutical companies,” says Lamers. “They want to find ways of using the immune system to tackle diseases.”

Lamers is also working on an application for a European project in collaboration with three universities, which would put cells onto a chip. “The idea is to be able to simulate the human immune system on something the size of a credit card,” he says. “We could more closely represent how fluids flow continuously through the body. So instead of transferring cells from one petri dish to another, we would be able to measure more components continuously.” This would move the COMPIT project results closer to achieving personalised medicine. Cells from a specific patient would be placed on the chip, allowing Lamers and his team to see how this individual reacts to a particular drug.

Partners: Abundnz BV (the Netherlands), Immunosys Ltd. (United Kingdom)

Project ID: 10456 COMPIT (Eurostars)

Project duration: September 2016 to December 2018

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Posted 3 November 20