Irish company developing new cancer treatments awarded €2.1m
Avectas will use EU Horizon funding on its Solupore intracellular delivery system
Dr Michael Maguire with fellow directors Dr Gillian Hendy and Dr Shirley O’Dea
An Irish company which has developed a transformative new technology for the manufacture of the latest cancer treatments has been awarded €2.1 million in funding under the EU Horizon 2020 SME Instrument. The Horizon 2020 Fund is the €80 billion EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.
The company, Avectas, will used the funding to accelerate the commercialisation of its Solupore intracellular delivery technology and ultimately the development of its own therapeutic products.
“We are at a terrifically exciting stage in the treatment of cancers with the advent of new types of therapy known as cell immunotherapy,” says Avectas cofounder and chief executive Dr Michael Maguire. “Up until recently, cancers have been treated using chemotherapy and biologics. Now, for the first time, we are using cells instead of molecules.”
The new treatments, which have been delivering spectacular results, arm the body’s own defences to fight the cancer cells from within.
“The treatments use the patients’ own immune cells, typically T-cells, that have either lost or never had the ability to fight certain cancers. The cells are removed from the patient’s blood and engineered or reprogrammed in such a way that the cells identify and attack the disease when they are re-introduced to the patient.”
Dr Maguire explains that the cells involved do not possess certain surface receptors known as chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). The re-engineering process induces the cells to grow these receptors.
The problem with the current process is that it uses engineered viruses to reprogramme the T-cells. This is both costly and slow. It can take years for viruses to become available and achieve the necessary regulatory approvals for use and the manufacturing process itself is very expensive.
The Avectas Solupore technology does away with the need for viruses. “This is very exciting as it doesn’t face the same challenges as the virus-based process,” Maguire says. “It has multiple advantages and has the potential to speed up the availability of new therapies as well as to reduce their cost.”
The Horizon 2020 funding will assist with a two-strand commercialisation programme which will see the company make the Solupore technology available to developers of innovative new therapies in the pharma industry as well as to research groups who are at the very early stage of the development of the next generation of cell therapies. This strategy will see the technology used in the therapies currently in development and may also lead to Avectas become a therapeutic company in the longer term.
“This is a major step forward for us and a tremendous endorsement of the progress we have made,” says Maguire. “The grant money will accelerate the commercialisation of our Solupore technology with partner companies and cancer institutes, paving the way, ultimately, to the development of our own therapeutic products. I am delighted with the external validation this award confers on the pioneering work being done by the team.”
Jill Leonard of the National Support Network for Horizon 2020 at Enterprise Ireland congratulated Avectas on its win and encouraged more SMEs to apply to the Horizon 2020 SME instrument, adding that “last year, Ireland had one of the highest success rates for the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument in Europe with eight Irish companies securing almost €16 million from a total budget of €297 million.”
Horizon 2020 is the largest programme of its kind in the world. A new element of the programme which wasn’t in previous EU research programmes is the SME Instrument. Its function is to accelerate the commercialisation of innovation into the marketplace and offers grants of between €1 million and €3 million to SMEs with suitable projects.
The SME Instrument is suitable for companies established for up to six years that are bringing a disruptive new innovation to market. “It is specifically designed to support close-to-market activities,” Leonard adds. “Also, very importantly from an SME’s perspective is the fact that the instrument is for single entities and doesn’t require collaborative efforts from consortiums in the same way as other EU funding programmes. This suits companies that are familiar with applying for national and regional funding programmes. This award highlights the value of the Horizon 2020 SME instrument to innovative Irish firms. Avectas is at the leading edge of the development of new cancer therapies and this funding will aid in bringing those to patients faster and more cost effectively in future.”
Applying for funding under the SME Instrument is a two stage process. The first offers feasibility study funding of up to €50,000 for companies with projects still at a very early stage. At the second stage, funding of up to €3 million is available to companies with more advanced projects which are close to market.
Companies interested in applying for SME Instrument funding should contact Jill Leonard or Sean Burke at Horizon 2020. “We will guide them through the process and advise if their proposals are suitable for phase one or two funding,” says Leonard.