The UK is home to a collection of hotspots known as “The Golden Triangle” for biotech. This week, we take a look at the top biotechs in one vertex, Oxford.
Ahh, Oxford. The image of Hogwarts for fans of the Harry Potter films and home to one of the world’s best all-around academic institutions, Oxford University. Though it ranks just a bit behind its counterpart at Cambridge, the university gave rise to some of the most promising biotechs in Europe, including two unicorns and a number of challengers.
Small wonder that bigger industry players are staking out territory in Oxford’s biotech scene! German CRO Evotec recently launched Lab282 with Oxford Sciences Innovation to act as a bridge between academia and industry. Then in January, Novo Nordisk spent €135M to start a diabetes research center at the university.
Most of the biotechs are located south of Oxford at Milton Park — check ’em out below!
It may yet be too early to call Immunocore a success story, but the immuno-oncology company has made a name for itself as a biotech unicorn since it raised $320M (€293M) in the largest private round in Europe on record. Though CBO Eva-Lotta Allen told me that “all immuno-oncology drugs are still experimental,” her company’s technology seems to have the confidence of the likes of Neil Woodford convinced. So what is it?
Immunocore relies on its ImmTAC platform, which strips down TCRs to bi-specific molecules and couples them to an anti-CD3 system to activate a T cell response and eradicate tumor cells. The majority of the pipeline is in Phase I, but Immunocore’s lead candidate IMCgp100 has made it to the pivotal stage in uveal melanoma and cutaneous melanoma. Beyond immuno-oncology, the company is looking to expand into infectious and autoimmune diseases.
Oxitec‘s founder and CEO Hadyn Parry waded into the thorny issue of GMOs and engineered sterility to stem epidemics of mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, as well as malaria and dengue. As he explained at Refresh earlier this month, “We’re not using toxic chemicals to fight these diseases but we’re using the mosquito to fight itself.”
The company has since been able to reduce mosquito populations of the Aedes aegypti species by an incredible 80-90% by releasing Oxitec’s so-called Friendly Aedes mosquito in field trials in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, the US or India. The results from this technology sealed Oxitec’s exit to become part of Intrexon for €146M ($160M) in 2015.
After closing last year’s largest fundraising round of €120M, Oxford Nanopore has entrenched its position as a British biotech unicorn with nearly €500M raised in total since it was founded in 2005. Its MinION pocket sequencer, which was just used to sequence whole human genomes, has the potential to democratize genome sequencing and disrupt the market — and you know the company is serious when one gets hit with a lawsuit from Illumina, as Oxford Nanopore did in 2016.
The biotech’s device hinges on a “nanopore” that directly reads a DNA strand in an electrical, single-molecule and label-free process. CEO Gordon Sanghera told me that the company’s R9-Series nanopore is able to read more than one billion bases per 48-hour run with up to 97% accuracy. The company has designed the MinION for broader use, targeting the clinical diagnostics niche with a “Flongle” attachment; but the device is also finding use in academic research.
PsiOxus works on oncolytic viruses that “turn those so-called ‘cold’ tumors ‘hot’ by stimulating an immune response,” as CEO John Beadle explained to us. The platform, Tumor-Specific Immuno-Gene Therapy (T-Sign), uses a viral vector to deliver anti-cancer therapeutic transgenes to tumoral cells. In particular, NG-348 encodes the gene for Membrane-integrated T-Cell Engagers (MiTEs), T-cell activating ligands located on the cell surface.
PsiOxus isn’t scientific co-founder Leonard Seymour’s only company — he also co-founded Oxford Genetics. As CEO & co-founder Ryan Cawood told me, the company was born when the team found that testing gene therapy plasmids was increasingly tough because “we just couldn’t make them.” Typically, they’re built from an amalgam of sources with no standardization.
So, Oxford Genetics set out to improve DNA design with its synbio-based SnapFast platform, and the team believes in its potential to improve cell and gene therapies through this approach to personalised medicine. Backers like Innovate UK, which handed the company a £1.61M (€1.8M) grant in January, are buying in.
Though still in its infancy, SpyBiotech made a splashy debut earlier this year with a £4M (€4.7M) seed round backed by none other than Google’s venture capital arm, GV. Its technology hinges on the bonds between strep throat bacteria, Streptococcus pyogenes: the founding academics engineered the bacteria, nicknamed ‘Spy’, to make the connection without disrupting the antigen or virus-like protein (VLP) folding.
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. SpyBiotech’s method opens the door to a new generation of more robust vaccines spanning a broad range of diseases that the legendary Greg Winter says we so desperately need.
OxStem is developing cell programming therapies that could treat a range of usually age-related conditions, including dementia, heart failure, macular degeneration, diabetes and cancer, based on the research of ‘spin-off sultans’ Kay Davies, Angela Russell and Steve Davies. In May 2016, the company claimed the title of “Largest Fundraising for Academic Spin-Out” in a €21.4M round to which Craig Venter‘s Human Longevity fund contributed.
Oxstem’s strategy uses a new class of small molecules that can modulate or stimulate endogenous cells to awaken dormant cellular processes. These include repair and stem cell functions. Since the range of applications is so broad, OxStem has had plans to spin out a number of daughter companies, OxStem Cardio, OxStem Neuro, OxStem Ocular and OxStem Oncology, which is most advanced.
Since we first met Karus Therapeutics in 2015 to talk about their small molecule therapies for cancer and inflammatory disease, the company has entered the immuno-oncology fray. It’s now developing a PI3K-p110β/δ inhibitor to inhibit cancer cell growth and metastasis: KA2237 began a Phase I clinical trial last fall in partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center, and this lead candidate could be a first-in-class small molecule to fight tumor growth and cancer metastasis.
Since it was founded in 2005, Karus has raised nearly €11M, excluding the yet undisclosed remainder of its Series B. That might not seem like a lot, but the company has established itself as solid enough to grow its headcount to at least a dozen employees to inch its programs towards the clinic.
Oxford BioMedica is one of those companies that has been around for ages, having apparently reached a sustainable equilibrium. It was founded in 1995 to develop lentiviral vectors for gene and cell therapy applications, and it went public in 2008; its market cap now clocks in at £164M (€186M). Most recently, Orchard Therapeutics signed on as a partner to use Oxford BioMedica’s vectors in its ex-vivo stem cell gene therapies for rare diseases.
While its modus operandi is to out-license its technology, Oxford Biomedica is receiving its fair share of glory. The company’s technology is an important component of Novartis’ stellar CAR-T therapy, CTL-019. The drug from this Swiss pharma wowed ASH attendees last winter with its 82% response rate in a Phase II trial for B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) and may very well win the race to be first to market in CAR-T.
Sometimes referred to as the sister company to Immunocore, Adaptimmune deserves its own attention as a potential immuno-oncology success story. This biotech uses whole adaptive T cells from patients rather than biological molecules derived from them. Notably, while Immunocore remains private, Adaptimmune went public in 2015 with an huge IPO of $191M (€157M) on NASDAQ, when it was listed as “one of the most volatile” of the notoriously volatile biotech stocks.
Though its stock is now less than a third of its original value after some procedural hiccups and a partial hold, the company has the support of Big Pharma player GSK and one of the largest headcounts on the UK biotech scene. With its 312 employees and a respectable market cap of £427M (€488M), even if that’s a third of what it once was, Adaptimmune is more than holding its own as one of the top biotechs not just in Oxford but the UK.
There you have it, folks! But there are many companies emerging from this hotspot beyond these 10 stars — who would you have listed? Comment below!
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