SpyBiotech raised £4M in a seed round from the likes of Google to develop vaccines from a new kind of ‘superglue.’ A co-founder explains more.

A new spinout from Oxford University, SpyBiotech, has made a splashy debut with a massive seed fundraising round of £4M (€4.7M) — a huge amount for a still-nascent company. Oxford Sciences Innovation led the round to support SpyBiotech’s revolutionary vaccine technology, and according to Mark Howarth, a Professor of Biochemistry at Oxford University and co-founder of SpyBiotech, the fund connected the startup with another noteworthy participant, Google’s venture capital arm GV.

GV’s investments in biotech make up just 6% of the total number of portfolio companies, but when Google goes in on the industry, it goes for big names — the likes of Editas and 23andme both count with its backing. It seems Google believes Spy’s technology will become the next big thing, as it could become the foundation of a new generation of vaccines.

The technology hinges on the bonds between strep throat bacteria, Streptococcus pyogenes. Howarth and his colleagues observed that when individual bacteria cells are physically separated, they do everything they can to re-join each other, and they use a “superglue” to make it happen. These bacteria, nicknamed ‘Spy’, are the namesake of the biotech.

SvetMedvedeva

When I asked Howarth how it works, he explained that it hinges on the all-important amide bond, the kind that links one peptide to another. “Normally it’s hard to form these in water without some activating agent — the interesting thing here is that the parent bacteria have evolved to do this reaction within that environment as the protein folds,” he explained.

This bridge could become the new “glue” to stick together a Virus-Like Particle, or VLP, and an antigen to form a vaccine. Vaccines are tailored to a specific disease by tethering a VLP to an antigen, but the existing method of genetic fusion is costly and unreliable.

“Genetic fusion involves taking molecular components that have evolved independently, such that they’re mostly incompatible,” Howarth told me. “Because people can’t get the whole pathogen protein unit onto the VLP, they compromise and take little fragments of it instead. This way, the attachment works but the immune response is not that useful most of the time.”

Kateryna Kon

Howarth and his team have obviated this compatibility issue by genetically engineering the Spy bacteria to make the connection without disrupting the antigen or VLP folding. “The bond formation is normally intramolecular in these bacteria,” he says. “Our key advancement was making it intermolecular via genetic engineering” such that they can join two different molecules. 

This new way to connect proteins opens the door to a new generation of more robust vaccines spanning a broad range of diseases. As co-founder Professor Sumi Biswas told Business Insider, “We view this superglue as a game changer to enable faster development of effective vaccines against major global diseases. We are excited to begin the journey of taking this versatile and innovative approach forward and moving our new vaccines from the laboratory to human clinical testing.”


Images from Elisa Furlan, SvetMedvedeva, Kateryna Kon / shutterstock.com

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