Cell therapy as a new medical pioneer
Cell therapy has become an indispensable part of medicine today. With this form of immunotherapy you use your own body cells as medicine to fight the disease. Here, body cells are isolated, genetically modified in a lab, and then re-administered to the patient. Due to the genetic changes, your own immune cells ‘learn’ to respond better to a disease, such as cancer. Currently, there are five such approved therapies, specifically to fight cancer.
“We are at the beginning of a new generation of medicines,” says Ghent University professor Kevin Braeckmans, chief scientific officer and co-founder of the new spin-off.
“A crucial step in this story is the efficient genetic manipulation of cells. It requires you to introduce molecules into the cell, which is protected by a cell membrane,” explains Kevin Braeckmans. “Viruses that have been rendered harmless are extremely suitable transporters for doing just that: getting genetic material into a cell. But it takes a long time to develop these viral vectors, as they are also called, and the production process is complex. In addition, its use is not without danger due to possible adverse side effects. For these reasons, pharmaceutical companies are constantly looking for alternatives to these viral vectors for the production of cell therapies. We, too, looked for safer and cheaper ways to achieve the same result.”
After more than ten years of research by the team of Kevin Braeckmans and Stefaan De Smedt, both professors at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Ghent University, this alternative technology is ready. “Our Trince technology is actually a combination of nanotechnology and laser exposure. To bring material into a cell, you obviously have to make holes in the cell membrane surrounding it. The challenge is to ensure that the cell suffers as little as possible. So you have to temporarily open the cell in a gentle but efficient way. The nanoparticles are able to absorb laser light and convert it into heat and mechanical energy. This creates small holes in the cell that make it possible for the molecules that are needed to make the desired genetic changes to penetrate.”
Faster, safer and more affordable technology
“The great advantage of this technology is that you can control laser light very well and thus also keep the formation of those holes in the cell membrane well under control. We are not the first to do this, but we have developed a technology that is a lot safer and softer than existing technologies. This means that the quality of the treated cells is also better than before. With our technology we can speed up the production process. Producing more powerful immune cells faster not only makes the treatment cheaper but also faster to start, which is very important for the patient.” This revolutionary patented technology was recently featured in the leading scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology.
No research without funding…
Conducting ten years of research is obviously impossible without the necessary funding. “My ERC Consolidator Grant was the main source of funding, with more than 2 million euros. This European funding is highly competitive and only finances promising, groundbreaking research projects. This funding enabled us to take major steps in our research. With additional IOF funding from the Flemish government, we were then able to take the first steps from research into the commercialization of the technology.”
… and guidance
IOF business developers such as Daisy Flamez guide research groups in internal development processes and collaboration with companies. “Once a technology has proved that it works, this doesn’t mean it is ready to be commercialised. We then look at what is needed to bring that technology or product to the market, to create a business. We conduct market analyses, consider whether or not we need to hire external parties to strengthen the company, test prototypes, etc. In short, we take the research team through a very instructive process that is often a leap in the dark for them.”
From academic research to business
Trince develops two products. For research purposes, the spin-off created a device that, in combination with the nanoparticles, loads the desired molecules into cells.. They also developed an adapted technology which avoids direct contact of the cells with the nanoparticles by encapsulating the latter in a fibre structure. This is important in order to safely and easily apply the technology for the production of genetically modified therapeutic cells.
At the end of November, Trince took the last step to really get started as a spin-off and to be able to take the next steps towards scaling up. “The recent capital increase is bringing us 4 million euros from Novalis II CommV, a Flemish innovation fund specialised in early-stage biotech and life-sciences start-ups, from Qbic II, an inter-university venture-capital fund, and from a group of experienced private investors,” says CEO and serial entrepreneur Philip Mathuis. “The ambitions are, therefore, big. We want to move up to between 35 and 40 employees within five years, but above all we want to improve the quality of cell therapies and make them more affordable.”
Jan Van den Berghe, co-founder and Managing Director of Novalis II, the lead investor for this round, says: “The Trince deal combines the key success factors of a spin-off with global ambitions: excellent science, an experienced management team, important and global market needs, and a solid financial consortium. Together with our co-investors, we want to give Trince the initial momentum it deserves. We are confident that our combined network, experience, and complementary skills will help the company gain a strong foothold in the global transfection market.”