BiologIC’s factory-in-a-box means faster, cheaper cures
BiologIC Technologies’ factory-in-a box life sciences product will speed up laboratory processes to “turn around innovation faster and so ultimately have a much bigger effect on world health”, according to founders Nick Rollings and Colin Barker.
The city’s newest biotech start-up is developing a prototype which can reprogramme cells from a patient’s own immune system, before they are re-administered to patients. The prototype box is 3D printed – so it can be built on-site anywhere in the world, without the shipping costs which impact the bottom line.
Nick is a chartered engineer who worked at Cambridge Consultants for five years, with a background including the development of life science instrumentation. Colin is a molecular biologist with a degree in genetics and PhD in genomics, and broadened his skill set to include software programming, management and automation design/fabrication – ergo 3D printing.
Non-executive chairman Richard Vellacott was CFO of Horizon Discovery from 2012. He left the company in January this year.
“By analogy,” says Richard of the company’s purpose, “roll the clock back 60 years to when you had rooms to contain computers. Laboratories are full of automated equipment now but these are large and poorly integrated; the journey we are on is to create a lab in a box akin to how large computers of the past developed into the desktop PC. At Horizon we were working on gene editing, we’re now on the cusp of transformation to the next wave of functionality – to revolutionise the hardware of biology.”
One of BiologIC’s first application areas is manufacturing of cell therapies, and ultimately the BiologIC platform could be capable of processing blood from a patient within a consumable cartridge operated by the instrument. Nick compares it to putting a cartridge into an espresso machine.
“You put the blood into the cartridge,” he says. “Inside the cartridge it’s moving very small amounts of liquid around – the blood, the reagents... the cartridge automates the manufacturing process. You go away and check progress occasionally – this is not about replacing skilled people, it’s about allowing them to be in more places at once. Currently 80 per cent of these tasks are routine, the brain is only engaged 20 per cent of the time.”
“We want people to do mindful jobs not mindless jobs,” says Richard.
The tasks that take place inside the box are fundamental to BiologIC’s success. Colin cites a cell therapy for leukaemia as an example. Leukaemia begins when healthy blood cells change and grow out of control but are not recognised by the patient’s immune system as harmful. The BiologIC system would automate the manufacturing process for the cell therapy. The cells from the patients’ own immune system are retrained to identify and remove the cancer cells. The reprogrammed cells are reinserted back into the patient after the coaching process.
“For instance the therapy Kymriah is used for treating a particular form of leukaemia,” says Colin. “The immune system doesn’t see the threat, so you isolate the cells from the immune system in the patient’s blood, and teach those immune cells that the cancer bodies are foreign and you ought to get rid of them.”
“It can mean complete cures if you get it to the right people,” adds Richard.
“Currently, to manufacture the therapy requires mass infrastructure – people and equipment – and you have to bring people to the treatment centre… it’s a very expensive process. It costs the NHS £280,000 to treat a patient with Kymriah, so it’s the last port of call as far as medication is concerned. But if you can reduce the therapy cost you can democratise treatments and you can also get to other kinds of issues, so we’ve made the box to do just that.”
“It takes 30 days to manufacture the therapy,” says Nick. “We want to reduce the time but the first thing is the cost and availability, which can be improved by miniaturising and automating the process.”
The timeline for turning the prototype into a for-sale product is yet to be determined.
“We’re agnostic about timing at this time,” says Nick.
“One of the challenges about the sector,” says Richard, “is finance. Lots of money goes into technology but the public benefit is typically a lot longer. We’re enabling biotech companies to commercialise their technologies faster, so we’re disrupting the finance model already.”
“We have customers,” adds Colin, “including a global pharma company.”
“That tells you you’re on to something,” Richard says. “I don’t like the model where you develop world-leading science and it’s taken to the point where eventually you get commercial applications and then the company is bought up just when it’s about to scale, so from day one we’ve started to work with customers to apply our technology. Eventually products will go on sale, and we’re working with partners to this end, but the point is we’re already enabling customers with the work we’re doing.”
“Which is solving problems,” says Colin.
“And democratising the solutions,” says Nick. “And that’s another benefit from 3D printing – 3D printing is a digital process, this aligns nicely at a time when biology is being digitised. Biology is data now: we’re initiating a complete tool chain at this point.”
“It’s a fundamental improvement,” says Richard. “Using 3D printing it takes weeks or months to design a laboratory – not years.”
Nick and Colin were networked from being located in Cambridge.
“When Nick left his day job I said ‘If you need a hand let me know’. We met at Costa in Royston and four hours later I was well and truly on the project and up and running,” says Colin.
“I was looking at the best and brightest ideas in Cambridge,” Richard says. “Now it’s not just about the science, it’s also about the commercialisation.”
“We’re decentralising the production for bespoke ‘coffee pods’ for each therapy so there’s no need to make 100,000 pods and store them in a warehouse,” says Nick. “And the carbon footprint is trivial.”
“We want to build a company that will last,” says Colin.
“And first and foremost focus on biology,” says Nick.
“This major shift in the cost of development will help further the adoption of personalised medicine,” concludes Richard.