Iontas celebrates five VC-free years at Great Hall

PUBLISHED: 13:57 08 July 2018

Dr John McCafferty, CEO at Iontas, at the Iontas fifthanniversary party at King's College

Dr John McCafferty, CEO at Iontas, at the Iontas fifthanniversary party at King's College

ILIFFE

Founder and CEO outlines life science’s newest proprietary biotechnologies

Biotechnology firm Iontas, which made money from day one following an incubation process at Cambridge University, held a five-year milestone party at King’s College’s Great Hall on the first weekend of July.

The company was founded, without external investment, in 2013, by Dr John McCafferty, now CEO, and has yet to accept any venture capital investment. It is a leader in the discovery and optimisation of fully human antibodies,

“We were formed within the university’s biochemistry department in 2012,” Dr McCafferty told the Cambridge Independent. “There were four people involved, all still with the company, and we’ve grown organically over the last five years.

“The event was to say thank you to staff and their partners, along with clients and other colleagues..”

Dr McCafferty is a much-respected figure, having been a founder of Cambridge Antibody Technology (now MedImmune) in 1990, where he was a principle inventor of antibody phage display, a technology that underpinned the company for 20 years.

Phage display technology involves clone collections of billions of human antibody genes in bacteria and can isolate from these massive “libraries” those genes which encode antibodies with desirable binding properties, for instance antibodies which bind tumour-specific targets.

“The technology works by creating a physical connection between a gene and the protein it encodes, allowing us to isolate the gene on the basis of the binding property it encodes,” Dr McCafferty says.

The Pampisford-based firm – now a team of 29 – has had a busy year so far.

“We’ve just come through a crop of four or five deals,” says Dr McCafferty. “We’ve been refreshing the pipeline and we were also at the Bio Convention in Boston recently. We’ve been invited to speak at conferences in Lisbon, Texas and San Diego.”

Iontas’ antibody technology is available on a fee-for-service basis: it then reinvests the revenue in other areas of development.

“Iontas has been built by generating human antibody drug leads for client companies using phage display.

“We have re-invested the proceeds in two main technology areas which we are currently licensing. With mammalian display we capitalise on the same principle that phage display works on, that is the linkage of antibody genes to the antibodies they encode – but we do this in a mammalian cell rather than bacterial cells.

“Now we can generate more information on affinity and specificity during the initial screening steps, screen to a greater depth and work in the cell types that are ultimately used for antibody production. Unlike other platforms, our mammalian display system also has the potential during the early discovery phase to identify and avoid clones with biophysical liabilities that can lead to product failure.”

Iontas’ mammalian display platform is a high-throughput screening process to test “billions or at least tens of millions” of antibodies. And there’s more.

“Another area we’re working on, and investing in, is Knotbody technology, which allows us to successfully drug ion channels.

“Ion channels are important messengers in the body but are proving quite intractable and Knotbody opens doors to modify their behaviour.”

Again, this investment involves no VC input.

“We’re doing it on the back of profits which is great,” he said.

“Essentially we’re open for business with both the mammalian display and Knotbody, which are both our own proprietary technologies.

“We believe our success can be attributed to our scientific ethos of quality service and insightful research, as well as strong project leadership in external programs, without compromising investment in ground-breaking research and developments,” Dr McCafferty concludes. “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.”

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