Race against time

Features Posted 08/04/16
With more diseases and infections demonstrating immunity to antibiotics, the need to find an alternative method of treatment is becoming increasingly urgent. We meet a Kent based biotechnology company that has gained extra support for its work to avert a future medical catastrophe

According to Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organisation, our society is on the brink of losing the “miracle cures” that antibiotics offer.

In a 2011 statement, Dr Chan said: “In the absence of urgent corrective and protective actions, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated.”

The message is a stark one. However, there is hope, thanks to the work of companies like Centauri Therapeutics, which is striving to discover and develop novel molecules targeting life-threatening diseases. Based at Discovery Park in Sandwich, the company has recently received two major investments that will aid its work; something that appears to be of critical necessity on a global scale.

Centauri Therapeutics’ CEO, Dr Mike Westby, had worked in pharma R&D for 15 years prior to the company being formed last year.

“We’re trying to develop new drugs to treat bacterial infections and cancers,” he explained. “The infections we’re looking to treat are those that are resistant to current antibiotics, which is something politicians and healthcare workers around the world are increasingly worried about. Although existing antibiotics are still very effective in the majority of us, when they stop working, there’s nothing left in the pharmacy cabinet to treat people. If you think about infections such as MRSA and some that have been reported in the media as coming from Asia and being resistant to all kinds of antibiotics, they pose a real health risk for all of us in the future. The big concern is that it typically takes 10 years to come up with a new drug and develop it so it’s suitable for human use. So a number of people are looking at ways to fight those infections and we’re trying to develop one of those potential methods.”

Centauri are working with Alphamer technology, which is based on “programmable immunity” in which chemically synthesised molecules redirect naturally occurring antibodies to selected pathogens to fight the infection. The technology was acquired from American inventor Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize for inventing PCR (polymerase chain reaction), which makes processes like DNA testing and human genome sequencing possible.

“Kary was looking for a new problem to solve and he was trying to understand why vaccines are so effective,” Mike said. “Vaccines work because they tell your immune system that you might one day face a threat, so you can be prepared by getting immunised. This educates your immune system. If you’re not immunised and you get tetanus, for example, you’ll fall very ill very quickly and there isn’t time to give you a vaccine at that stage, because the body doesn’t have time to educate itself. So Kary came up with the idea of a drug that would latch onto the bacteria and the immune system would immediately see it as foreign and start fighting the infection, because it’s been instantly educated. That’s what we’re trying to develop.”

There have been two major developments recently to assist this aim. Centauri has formed a joint venture with Horizon Discovery plc to identify novel immuno-oncology therapeutics. Horizon will invest a total of £5.3 million to enable Centauri to look into new cancer treatments, alongside their work on antibacterials.

Plus, Centauri was among the first to receive support from the Discovery Park Technology Investment Fund, which is managed by NCL Innovation and supported by Kent County Council and Regional Growth Fund.

“The money that we got from the Discovery Park Technology Investment Fund enabled us to do two things,” Mike said. “It helped to bring in other money, because people saw that we were investable and it also helped us to really lock our R&D headquarters to Sandwich, because it’s a regional fund. For me, that was both valuable and important – the region has a wealth of talented scientists in the area because Pfizer used to have the site. Being able to tap into that workforce and build a small but very experienced team from scratch is something that’s not normally very easy to do. The investment also helped us get access to the world class laboratory facilities. Working together with Discovery Park management, we could get facilities and staff that were perfect for our needs.”

Generally, though, Mike has found that funding is a major challenge for new businesses wanting to develop novel technologies and this could pose a significant stumbling block for other innovators.

“Disruptive technologies are actually really tough to get funding for, because there isn’t always the commercial evidence to tell people it’s going to work,” he said. “The problem with it is that it does disrupt the market. Normally, you could point to the market and say, ‘here’s what someone’s selling, we’re going to make something better and we should be able to take a chunk of that.’ But no one can go and look at the market for that evidence because it doesn’t exist. In lots of cases, disruptive technologies desperately need early stage investment and often that’s quite difficult to attract.”

Turning innovation into business

Jerry Biggs, CEO of NCL Innovation, explains their role in the process.

“Discovery Park is NCL’s flagship ‘commercialisation hub’, where we look to attract high potential technology companies and surround them with the talent required to help them accelerate through to market. Apart from our unique early stage funding capability, NCL also provide our portfolio companies with the financial, commercial and technical support that they require.

“Unfortunately there is an acute funding gap in the UK for young technology companies. Many have promising ideas but simply can’t access the investment required to bring their concept through to commercial reality. NCL’s role is to help bridge the equity gap and navigate companies through to a successful commercial outcome. Typically many of the best ideas come from scientists and engineers, who often have limited experience of scaling up production processes and accessing the capital markets. Investors want to see a credible business plan that considers all aspects of investment risk and demonstrates how they intend to exit the business and make a financial return. NCL can help them to build a credible investment case and will often lead the financing round, giving reassurance to other investors to follow.”

“Centauri presented us with a very promising investment proposition. The technology is game-changing, the management team are highly experienced and the company’s founding investors showed conviction by following on into the round alongside us. Apart from making an investment into the company, we also feel that we are in a good position to support Mike and his team and are already involved in the design and scale up of the operations at Discovery Park, alongside our engineering partner.

Discovery Park has something entirely unique for our portfolio companies with its excellent, pharmaceutical grade manufacturing and processing facilities. We want to fund companies that are ready to undertake a rapid commercialisation and manufacturing growth and Discovery Park lends itself perfectly for this.”

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