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Company of the Month – Avacta

When Avacta originated as a spinout from the University of Leeds in 2006, founder Dr Alastair Smith took the unusual decision to immediately make it a publicly owned company, and hasn’t looked back since. Now operating in a group structure, with business units in diagnostics, therapeutics and animal health, the Group announced a successful fund-raise of £48 million in June 2020, and have a number of promising developments in the pipeline for cancer treatments and COVID-19 testing.

The turning point – protein scaffolds

Initially laser-focused on bio-physics and bio-science, the company’s turning point came in 2012, when it acquired the IP for a protein scaffold technology. This antibody mimetic (artificial chain of amino acids or protein that behaves similarly to an antibody, and binds to specific antigens) became the basis for their proprietary Affimer® platform. Since this breakthrough, the company has applied the technology to both their therapeutics business based in Cambridge, and diagnostics business based in Wetherby, Yorkshire.

Therapeutics – a possible game-changer in immuno-oncology

Development of the Affimer platform led Avacta to focus primarily on cancer immunotherapies, where they see their technology having benefits over traditional antibody treatments.

“The protein scaffold is a smaller, more robust, easier to develop and cheaper to manufacture alternative to monoclonal antibodies,” explains Alastair.

Where the possibilities get really interesting, however, is when combined with a new form of chemotherapy that the company is developing. Having acquired an exclusive licence to use a technology developed in US-based Tufts University, Avacta are working on a way of targeting traditional chemotherapies they have branded pre|CISION™. The hope is that this will achieve the holy grail in chemotherapy treatment – a therapy that will target tumours without the negative side-effects and damage to healthy tissue commonly associated with current treatments. The first example, a modified version of the drug Doxorubicin, will be taken into the clinic early next year.

Alistair is excited about the promise this treatment has shown so far:

“Certainly, the animal data is extremely encouraging, in terms of the reduction in exposure of healthy tissues to the chemotherapy… Doxorubicin is a generic drug and it’s very commonly used in soft tissue sarcoma and breast cancer, and a good number of other cancers. But it has very serious cardiotoxicity – it damages the heart very quickly and it has a cumulative effect, so you can only have a certain number of doses before you have to stop, even if you’re benefiting.

The data we have on animals shows that the cardiac exposure is dramatically reduced using our technology, and that could then be applied not just to Doxorubicin, but a broad range of chemotherapies. We hope to recapitulate that in humans with Doxorubicin, with phase 1 studies beginning early next year.”

Another game-changer in COVID-19 diagnostics

Nine months ago, the above revolutionary work on chemotherapy was all Alastair Smith was being asked about, and understandably so. Since then however, the diagnostics wing of Avacta began their own exciting project. With past experience of using their technology for point-of-care testing of infectious diseases like the Zika and Dengue viruses, they began working on applications for COVID-19.

Three COVID-19 testing solutions are in the pipeline, of most public interest being a rapid saliva-based test, which would give results in minutes. With much share-holder, government and media interest in developments, Avacta have partnered with Cytiva (formerly GE Healthcare Life Sciences) to develop their rapid test strip, and plan to move to clinical validation shortly. They are confident that their test, which uses their Affimer technology to target the SARS-CoV-2 antigen, is highly specific and will meet and exceed the clinical performance requirements for identifying the most infectious people.

They have manufacturing agreements with two UK companies, BBI Solutions and Abingdon Health to expand manufacturing capacity for what will clearly be a highly sought-after solution, if successful:

“Authorities around the world are now looking to carry-out frequent mass testing to identify the most infectious people promptly, to reduce infection rates and combat the economic impact of the pandemic. Manufacturing capacity is therefore the key challenge that has to be met in achieving widespread roll-out, which is why we’ve been actively seeking manufacturing partners globally to be able to provide the volume of tests that will be required in the UK and elsewhere,” said Alastair.

Alongside the rapid test strip, Avacta are also on the cusp of launching an ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) lab test kit, which will be available to researchers who are working to combat the virus, as well as a BAMS (bead-assisted mass spectrometry) test for hospital settings. The BAMS test is being developed in partnership with Adeptrix, and holds yet more potential for mass scaling of COVID-19 testing.

“Clinical microbiology labs in hospitals all have mass spectrometry, because they use it for pathogen detection, but there was no kit for COVID-19. We felt this was a real untapped opportunity to scale testing capacity, using the already installed base of mass spectrometers. We are in the middle of getting some clinical data before clinical validation, and it continues to look promising. Ultimately, we hope to be able to make that available for professional use in hospitals in the very near future,” explains Alastair.

Advice for SMEs

It’s looking like it will be a busy few months for Avacta, as they bring to market all three of their COVID-19 testing solutions, as well as begin dosing the first human patients in their chemotherapy trials, but Alastair seems relaxed and confident about the prospects for the Group.

And with nearly 15 years of business under his belt, Alastair’s advice for those at an earlier stage is simple:

“Just to keep going. Make sure you’re properly funded and keep going. We had slightly unusual beginnings in that we were public, pretty much from day one, so the routes by which we get funded is through a public issue of equity on the London Stock Exchange. We are very fortunate at the moment in that the interest and excitement around COVID testing has allowed us to raise substantial capital this year, so we are now very well-funded. But I think the key for SMEs is to make sure you’re properly funded for what you’re planning to do, or focus your plans to fit your resources. And from there, just keep plugging away at it. Have some sticking power, and don’t give up.”

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