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New technique to help boost research in immunotherapy

Published on 04 Jul 2018 | By Amelia Teng | Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction

A*STAR spin-off hopes it will help in developing drugs for cancer, and other diseases.


Co-founders of Immunoscape, (clockwise from front right) Dr Alessandra Nardin, Dr Michael Fehlings, Dr Evan Newell and Mr Ng Choon Peng.ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

Biotechnology firm Immunoscape has come up with a technique that can help researchers and clinicians develop drugs for use in immunotherapy in the fight against cancer and other diseases.

The company - a spin-off of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) - uses the method, a form of immune profiling, to create maps of T-cells which help to regulate the body's immune response to diseases. There are millions of such cells, which can kill tumours or viruses.

Immune profiling also helps to identify biomarkers - molecules or genes linked to an illness - and measure how well a patient would respond to different treatments for cancer, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases and even allergies.


The hope is that uncovering more information will help scientists, clinicians and the pharmaceutical industry develop more powerful treatments that will work on patients who respond to immuno-therapy, said Immunoscape's chief executive Ng Choon Peng, who was previously a senior director at the Biomedical Research Council.

 

The firm, which counts among its first customers pharma giants like Genentech and research groups like Africa Health Research Institute funded by the Gates Foundation, secured projects worth $600,000 in revenue last year.

 

Immunotherapy involves stimulating a patient's immune system to make it work harder, or boosting it with man-made immune proteins, but it is still in the early stages of research and the response rate hovers at around 20 per cent.

Immunotherapy is also expensive and can cost $10,000 a month

Immunoscape is one of the 78 biotechs incorporated in Singapore so far, a quarter of which are A*STAR spin-offs. More than half have licensed intellectual property or joint labs with, or were incubated in, the agency.

Immunoscape's technique, which was developed by one of its four co-founders, has been licensed from A*STAR. The four of them have or previously held positions at the agency.

One of them, Dr Evan Newell, works at A*STAR's Singapore Immunology Network, and started a lab with A*STAR six years ago, after his postdoctoral studies at Stanford University. He came up with a method that can map out the overall immune landscape in detail by profiling a large number of biomarkers.


Lymphocytes, t cells or cancer cells

It also screens for targets recognised by killer T-cells 10 times more efficiently than other methods, by analysing more than 40 proteins on each single cell. This provides more data for researchers to study.

"What we're trying to do is to have a broader look at the immune response by also taking into account what each T-cell is specific for," said Dr Newell.


Biopolis

Mr Ng said targeted approaches will help to bring down the cost of immunotherapy in the long run, and help doctors design new combinations of treatments.

The firm's two other co-founders are Dr Alessandra Nardin, who spent 10 years with the Singapore Immunology Network, and Dr Michael Fehlings, who did his postdoctoral training in Dr Newell's lab.

 

Immunoscape is in the process of raising $3 million in Series A round of funding, and is working with the National Cancer Centre Singapore on research to determine how well cancer therapies work on different patients, and how their immune system responds.

 


A cancer cell and lymphocytes

It has more projects on its plate this year with Duke-NUS Medical School and two universities abroad.

 

"What our customers are doing constitutes a breakthrough, a new kind of treatment for cancer, that gives hope to a lot of cancer patients…For us, it's about how to impact patients with our technology and partners... We want to maximise efforts to improve lives of patients," said Mr Ng.

 

 

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