Laboratories that can develop therapies for cancers and other critical illnesses are in strong demand, commanding high prices from the major drug companies. One of those that is leading the way is Fusion Antibodies, based in Poleglass in West Belfast.
Fusion is a spin-out from Queen’s University, set-up eight years ago by Professor Jim Johnston, the chair of immunology at Queen’s. Having worked in American universities, Johnston understood how to set-up a spin-out as a dynamic enterprise.
The company initially got backing from Qubis – the commercialisation arm of Queen’s and InvestNI– and it has since obtained substantial equity investment from large Belfast private equity funds Clarendon, Crescent Capital & the Halo group and from individual venture capitalists.
Fusion aims to discover antibody therapeutic drugs that target cancerous cells. Where chemotherapy has to attack cells indiscriminately to kill-off the cancerous ones, targeted drugs that can recognise the cancer through the proteins carried by the cells can be much more effective, with far less serious side-effects.
As well as cancers, these new breed of therapeutic drugs are also being developed to treat cirrhosis, lupus and arthritis. The range of illnesses that can be tackled, the level of demand from consumers and clinicians, and the fact that some of the highest earning mainstream drugs manufactured by the major pharma companies are about to come out of patent protection, together mean that the development of new drugs is potentially very lucrative.
Not surprisingly, Fusion has expanded rapidly. “At the end of 2001 there were four or five of us,” recalls Paul Kerr, who is now director of business development at Fusion. “Now there are 28 on the payroll, but up to 32 when including students.” At present there are exchange students from France and Germany on placement with the company.
The role of Fusion is to develop the idea of a therapy from the gene, to the discovery, to the validation and then to the patent. At this point, the cost of moving to the development and trialling of the actual drug is too expensive for anything but a very large pharma company – even the first stage of trialling costs several millions of pounds. So Fusion expects to either sell-on the patent at this point, or else for the entire company to be bought by a pharmaceutical multinational – such as Roche or AstraZenica – to act as a laboratory for the company.
Recognising that the firm could be in the market for very substantial investment or sale, Fusion has invested heavily in what it does. Its laboratory is purpose built, staff have stock options and recent recruitment has included the chief scientific officer from another successful company in the same field. Both the chief executive and the chairman have experience of selling a similar business to a major pharma multinational.
Fusion has put itself on the fast track to success.