The breast cancer drug Herceptin and the rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira are breakthrough treatments. Both are biologics, or drugs that have been produced using genetically-engineered living or host cells.
Biologics are the future. However, they are very costly and time-consuming to make. This is where the Dublin-based lifesciences company Valitacell fits in. It offers a novel method of transforming the complex manufacturing process that produces bio-therapeutic drugs by making it faster and more cost effective.
Evidence that the company is on the right track can be seen from its client list. The young startup has already attracted the attention of US conglomerate GE Healthcare, international biotech company MedImmune, which is part of Astra Zeneca, and global health company Grifols.
Biologics is a rapidly emerging specialist niche with huge growth potential. Estimated sales in 2016 were $210 billion (€175.2bn), with Herceptin contributing $7 billion (€5.8bn) and Humira $13 billion (€10.8bn).
Valitacell employs 10 people, and is based at the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT) on the UCD campus.
“Biologics are highly complex, and must be grown in host cells to deliver the bio-therapeutic required,” says CEO Dr Terry McWade, who co-founded the company with Jerry Clifford in 2015. “A traditional small-molecule drug such as Aspirin has 21 atoms. The biologic Herceptin has 25,000. At the moment the problem is the huge volume of cells – over 2,000 – that need to be screened for their ability to produce the drug. This is where we come in.
“Our technology changes the way in which the cells are screened, and in so doing shortens the time needed to set up the production of a biologic drug by identifying the optimal host cell. At the moment companies test for stability over 160 days. We believe we can bring this back to 30-40 days.
“Our products also allow users to select cells with greater regulatory confidence at the earliest possible stage during the drug development