Spanish biotech ALGENEX is using insect pupae to develop high-purity vaccines more quickly and at a lower cost than conventional production methods. Having secured further investment from outside of Spain, ALGENEX is now looking to produce its first vaccine for European regulators using insect-based production methods.
“We realised the huge potential for the use of living organisms in the production of recombinant proteins”
Jose Escribano, ALGENEX
While vaccines have generally been produced in cell cultures or fertile eggs over the last few decades, the huge global demand for vaccines and the urgent need to reduce production costs – in order to make vaccines more accessible – has made the development of new production processes crucial. Jose Escribano, then an academic and later the founder of ALGENEX, hit on the idea that insects may possess unique features for recombinant protein production – and therefore vaccine production – as early as the 1990s.
Escribano explains, “The initial idea for ALGENEX was developed while conversing with an American colleague at a Poxvirus meeting in Canada. We realised the huge potential for the use of living organisms in the production of recombinant proteins, and from that conversation, we began collaborating. Firstly, we started to develop vaccines in transgenic green plants, publishing several papers and generating a large amount of interest. Years later, a scientist, based out of the US, who was exploring the possibility of harnessing the baculovirus vectors to infect insects, subsequently contacted me. In the end, I agreed to exchange a proprietary baculovirus for some infected insects he obtained, with a view to gaining a better understanding of the potential that insects held. The results were overwhelming.”
A Unique Technology
Having founded ALGENEX based on this ground-breaking insect-based production method in 2005, Escribano feels that his company’s technology, “can be far more effective than resorting to costly and complex bioreactors needed to keep production cells alive to deliver the same products.” Production in insects decreases development time, reduces costs, and simplifies the manufacturing process; for example, compared to insect cells cultured in bioreactors, ALGENEX’s production yields are 20 times’ greater. The system is particularly useful for rapid response and amenable to locations with immature infrastructure such as developing countries. Insect-based production methods also mean that manufacturing can be at site of use which mitigates against cold chain problems and importation hurdles. Escribano notes, “In a nutshell, we sequester the organisms – insects – and put them at our service.”
ALGENEX is backed by private venture capital firms and sponsored by both the Central and Regional Governments of Spain, having sought its first round of investment in 2007. Of this round of investment, Escribano points out that “We received several competitive grants, government and bank loans, which allowed us to develop the business from scratch.” However, in the somewhat risk-averse investment environment in Spain – where there is a lack of other biotech success stories – acquiring the second round of funding proved to be “a real bottleneck” according to Escribano.
For this reason, the company set its sights further afield: “We have pursued opportunities in European countries such as the UK, Belgium and Italy to access capital through a variety of financial backers including family businesses, angel investors, institutional lenders and certain affluent individuals such as former executives of pharmaceutical companies,” posits Escribano. Today, ALGENEX is moving into production of its first vaccine for European regulators in partnership and seeking further funding to support this and an eventual global rollout.
Writer: Patrick Burton