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18 July, 2018 - 13:16 By Chloe Massarella

CAT founder purring over prospects for new kitten

More than a quarter of a century has passed since John McCafferty, Sir Greg Winter and David Chiswell founded Cambridge Antibody Technology whose Intellectual Property led to Cambridge’s first blockbuster drug (over $1 billion sales).

Tweny-nine years on and Dr McCafferty admits to feeling the same buzz about his new bio ‘kitten’ IONTAS Limited – also based in the Cambridge life science cluster.

A leader in the discovery and optimisation of fully human antibodies, IONTAS has just celebrated its fifth anniversary and Dr McCafferty has overseen incredibly fast, organic growth for the business. He told Business Weekly: “As a founder of CAT and inventor of antibody phage display it was an incredibly exciting time. 

“I could see the potential of our technology back then and it has gone on to meet my expectation with widespread use in large and small biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies across the world.

“I feel the same buzz in IONTAS. While earning our keep through the now mature phage display route we have continued to innovate and have developed a proprietary mammalian display platform with advantages beyond phage display. 

“We have also developed a novel antibody fusion format which opens the door into drugging difficult target classes.”

As CAT was acquired by AstraZeneca for $1.3 billion in May 2006 – a year after winning this newspaper’s Business of the Year accolade and ultimately integrated with AZ’s biologics division, MedImmune, it is clear why Dr McCafferty is so excited about the potential of IONTAS.

The company’s mammalian display platform allows for the discovery of antibodies that are amenable to manufacturing, thereby reducing development times and enabling therapeutics to be in the hands of doctors in a timelier manner. This ultimately will also reduce development risk and costs, and finally the price of antibody therapeutics to organisations such as the NHS.

After leaving CAT, Dr McCafferty continued in academia for 10 years creating and optimising human antibodies by phage display. He identified a gap in the market for human antibody technology which a nimble, capable group could fill. 

He says, “I had a great team around me and realised that within a company we could fill this niche and hit the ground running given our long and extensive experience.” 

IONTAS has generated profit from day one, much of which has been reinvested in the business to establish a strong commercial presence and to fund innovative research programmes to find novel solutions that addressed key gaps in the antibody drug discovery process. 

Dr McCafferty said: “One of the primary benefits of being self-funded is that our strategy does not always follow that of external investors and allows us to take a longer-term view. This has been one of the key drivers to the innovation within the company.”

As for future growth, Dr McCafferty is “open to investment from other sources, but such investment will be considered in the context of how quickly we wish to expand each area of business. We do not see an immediate need to raise cash but are very aware that investment would allow us to develop some of our technologies more quickly and we will remain opportunistic to this. 

“The key will be selecting the right partners or investors and we are fortunate to be in a position where we can drive such initiatives. Our current preferred route is to look for relationships with our pharmaceutical and biotechnology partners than enable ongoing product and technology development; this is working well with our mammalian display platform. 

“We are also discussing collaborative projects in relation to our KnotBody platform where our aim will be to generate licensed therapeutic candidates while continuing to move technology development forward.”

IONTAS was founded with four scientists and now has 30 employees with headcount set to rise over the next 12 months as IONTAS is constantly looking to expand its capabilities both technically and operationally.

Dr McCafferty said in 2014 that he wanted IONTAS to be “a Ferrari rather than a Fiat” and he believes its current success is down to “scientific ethos of quality service and insightful research, as well as strong project leadership in external programs, without compromising investment in groundbreaking R & D.” 

IONTAS continues to reap the rewards after achieving a mammalian display deal with global biopharmaceutical company Sanofi and the company has expanded into the Far East through a collaboration agreement with LGC – an international leader in the extended life sciences sector. 

It also has licensing agreements with key partners such as Glythera, for access to panels of antibodies developed by IONTAS.

After being awarded an Innovate UK grant, upgrades to current technologies are being fast-tracked. IONTAS has developed a novel antibody fusion format called KnotBody which, as Dr McCafferty has said, opens the door to drugging difficult target classes previously considered undruggable. 

He says: “Ion channels are a large and important class of signalling molecule within the body and scientists have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to develop antibodies which modulate the activity of these channels with limited success. 

“In contrast venomous creatures such as snakes, scorpions and spiders use small knotted peptide structures (‘knottins’) in their venoms to block ion channels.

“Our KnotBody format fuses knottins within the surface loops of antibodies to create ion channel modulators which combine the benefits of knottins and antibodies. KnotBodies could also be developed for other important target classes such as GPCRs and proteases.”

The company is initiating studies via the KnotBody platform that may have potential in the treatment of chronic pain, stroke and autoimmunity. IONTAS believes its antibody approach could provide an excellent alternative to opioids which are sometimes used to treat chronic pain but which carry a risk of addiction. 

Dr McCafferty said: “It has been an exciting five years and we now look forward to further expanding the service capability we can offer and discovering new and disruptive technologies that will enhance and optimise antibody drug discovery with the aim of generating medicines that will benefit all. We anticipate a busy year ahead.”

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: IONTAS CEO, Dr John McCafferty

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