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Wallonia's biotechnology companies enjoy international platform

11:00 27/12/2017

The thriving local biotech sector is getting attention on the global stage, with the prestigious Nature Biotechnology magazine recently carrying an article about six Walloon biotech companies and the BioWin health cluster.

BioPharma Dealmakers, a quarterly magazine distributed with Nature Biotechnology, brings together life sciences companies and individuals looking for deal-making opportunities. Its June edition showcases the products in the pipeline, technologies, therapeutic focus and partnering strategies of Walloon companies Volition, Celyad, iTeos, PDC*line Pharma, ImmunXperts and GSK Vaccines.

Volition, in the Créalys science park at Isnes, near Gembloux in Namur province, focuses on blood tests for cancer diagnosis and screening. Initially it focused on colorectal cancer but now has pipeline projects in pancreatic and prostate cancer. It has developed its own biomarker discovery platform, Nucleosomics, which looks at fragments of cell nuclei released into the blood by dying cells. Its technology enables affordable and accessible tests that can be easily applied in any clinical setting.

“The article in BioPharma Dealmakers highlighted the power and simplicity of our approach and its potential to triage people screened for colorectal cancer by conventional stool-based testing,” explains Mark Eccleston, business development director at Volition. “Our method could reduce the number of people who have to take more expensive and invasive tests, making people’s lives easier and screening programmes more cost-efficient.”

The Walloon government plays an important role in Volition’s success. “We receive incredible support from the Walloon region, for example in the form of the initial grant that allowed us to establish our R&D set-up in the region back in 2010,” says Eccleston. “We still get funding for new projects, travel grants for conferencing and outreach activities, support for our new R&D building and funding for clinical trials in Europe and the US.”

The overall development of the Walloon biotech sector is strongly encouraged by BioWin, the region’s health competitiveness cluster.

BioPharma Dealmakers praised the system that addresses all elements of the drug development cycle – from research to marketing, via biomanufacturing, clinical trials and drug registration – which makes BioWin “a key contributor to the dynamic innovation ecosystem and economic output of Wallonia”.

The magazine in particular devoted attention to BioWin’s success in fostering the development of start-up companies in cancer immunotherapy. It presented the profiles of four such Walloon companies: Celyad, iTeos, PDC*line Pharma and ImmunXperts.

Celyad, set up in the Axis Business Park at Mont-Saint-Guibert, Walloon Brabant, is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focusing on CAR-T cell therapies. It’s currently working on a new immuno-oncology treatment that has the potential to target and destroy cancer cells in both solid and haematological malignancies.

“We are currently running clinical trials to assess the safety and feasibility of our lead product, CYAD-01 immunotherapy, in patients suffering from blood, bladder, breast, colorectal, pancreatic and ovarian cancers,” says spokesperson Marine Lhomel. “Our ambition is to successfully complete these trials by the end of 2018.”

The goal of iTeos, based at the Biopark Charleroi Brussels South in Gosselies, Hainaut, is to deliver the next wave of immune therapies for treating inflamed and non-inflamed tumours. It aims to improve the frequency, depth and duration of patients’ response to treatment and to extend the use of immunotherapy to more cancers.

iTeos has already demonstrated the success of its approach, licensing its IDO1 inhibitor programme to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in 2014, with clinical studies now under way.

Among its developments is the ambitious Sting agonist programme. “We want to effectively reboot the anti-tumour immunity in non-inflamed tumours,” explains spokesperson Hendrik Thys. “This approach is seen as the next frontier of cancer immunotherapy.”

PDC*line Pharma, at the Liège University Hospital Centre, is in the business of developing an innovative class of active immunotherapies for cancers. Its therapeutic cancer vaccines are based on plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs), as referred to in the name of the company.

Their solutions should be more powerful in boosting anti-tumour antigens, molecules that are capable of inducing an immune response, than conventional vaccines and could be applied to any type of cancer. “We are currently focusing on the development of a clinical therapy against lung cancer,” says Eric Halioua, president and CEO.

The last of the featured Walloon start-ups, ImmunXperts, is also based at the Biopark Charleroi Brussels South. It develops in-vitro tests to help other pharma and biotech companies select the best drug candidates in their early R&D phases.

All the start-ups point to the role of BioWin in their progress, and to the Walloon government in general and of the Directorate General operational for Economy, Employment and Research (DGO6) specifically.

“Thanks to the recoverable cash advances, a unique funding tool in Wallonia, Celyad has leveraged around €30 million to develop and expand its activities,” says Lhomel of Celyad.

Thys of iTeos underlines that in July 2017 his company received additional non-dilutive funding of €7.5 million. “The Walloon government is a long-term investor in iTeos Therapeutics through its investment vehicle SRIW,” he says. PDC*line Pharma received a loan from the DGO6 as well.

The publication in BioPharma Dealmakers is an excellent way for the Walloon companies to increase their international visibility. “As a publicly traded company listed on Euronext and Nasdaq, we must raise our visibility to inform our various stakeholders about who we are and what we do,” says Lhomel. “Being covered in the magazine is a nice opportunity to position our company in the international biopharmaceutical industry.”

GSK Vaccines, with a local base in Rixensart, already has a strong international profile – as one of the world’s leading vaccine companies – but used the coverage in BioPharma Dealmakers to seek new scientific partners to help create the next generation of vaccines.

The company is looking to collaborate on the development of rapid-response vaccine platforms, new approaches to modulate the immune system and solutions against bacterial and viral diseases prevalent in the developing world.

Written by Andy Furniere