Dr Adam Perriman is the founder of Cytoseek, a University of Bristol spin-out developing an innovative new cell-targeting technique which could revolutionise cell therapies. He joins Anna Fleming to discuss their technology and what makes it stand out in a fast-growing field.
What’s Cytoseek’s work based on? What problem are you trying to solve?
Cell therapy is based around injecting intact cells with particular therapeutic properties into a patient. For example, in the course of some cancer treatments, we introduce white blood cells capable of attacking cancer cells. The big problem is that the cells rarely go to where you want them to go. If you have a regenerative cell therapy where you’re trying to treat someone after a heart attack, a lot of the cells you inject end up in these ‘tissue sinks’ like the lungs or the spleen. Even modern cell therapies, like CAR-T Cell therapy, have very poor targeting profiles. Our technology is based around reengineering the membrane of cells so that when they’re injected they’ll home to specific tissues of our choice.
There are lots of cell therapies in various stages of development right now, and we’re all trying to overcome two challenges: the prevalence of off-target effects, and the low efficiency of the treatment, which makes the therapy expensive because more cells are needed. By introducing homing, our technology is capable of overcoming both of these challenges.
What makes the cells home?
We have a proprietary technology where we can take any protein and turn it into a membrane binding protein. The process involves modifying the surface charge of proteins and then effectively gluing on these special detergent molecules, which allow us to insert the protein into the membrane of any cell.
So the specific proteins that you’re ‘gluing’ on to the outside – are they what homes the cell to a particular organ?
That’s right – there are various moieties we can use to target. We’ve got some sequences which are derived from bacteria, which have a propensity to home to particular tissues. We have other sequences which come from proteins with a strong affinity for extracellular matrix. In some cases, you don’t need homing, you just want retention. If you inject the cells near the site of a solid tumour, you just want them to stay there, and with cells that’s a real challenge.
What makes Cytoseek’s product stand out?
What’s unique about our system is that it’s modular, which massively increases the rate at which we can design something and produce something. It’s also non-GM. Take CAR T-cell therapy for example: it’s a wonderful technology, but it involves modifying the genetic code of the cells, which can bring a heap of regulatory challenges, as well as being complex and more expensive.
Did you start out with this application in mind? What’s Cytoseek’s story so far?
Well, originally we were looking at clinical trials of cell therapies – particularly cardiac cell therapy. We could see that a big issue was this lack of retention and homing. We had four or five people working in this area and developing our technology for around three years, then took our concept to the BrisSynBio 4-day MBA course organised by Andy Boyce. We did the 4-day MBA and then the Dragon’s Den pitch – and we won best medical idea and best overall business idea. It was that which nucleated this technology which we’d been thinking about for a while.
We have a whole host of different protein-based targeting moieties, so we can very rapidly adapt our product to different applications, depending on where there’s a market. Right now we have a strong focus on immunotherapy because it’s a massive growth area which has a big impact on people’s lives. Day-to-day, we have support from Andy Boyce, who is part of the company, and support from Innovate UK, as well as various grants. We’re trying to be smart about how we’re funded – starting off lean and then accelerating once we understand the product space.
Where do you plan to go next?
In 12 months, we’ll be looking for our next phase of funding. At that point we also want to move our operations down to Unit DX because we’re outgrowing the University in terms of the infrastructure and support we need. Then it’s probably another one to two-year runway to look at series A funding. There are various aspects we need to consider – the regulatory challenges of developing any sort of therapy, as well as how to scale-up, and obviously there’s more product development. We’d love to find a partner at the same developmental stage as us, so we could come together and take the product forward. That’s the three to four-year plan. I know enough about business now to know that these things can change very quickly, but that’s the kind of growth that we’re aiming for. We think it’s reasonable given our current trajectory, and the massive growth of biotechnology in the South-West.
Do you think it’s a good time to be a science start-up in Bristol then?
Absolutely. The South-West is defining itself as a real hotbed for synthetic biology and biotechnology. You’ve got Harry Destecroix trailblazing with Ziylo, and now Zentraxa, Cytoseek and Imophoron are heading the next wave of companies coming out of Bristol. Investors and other parties are really starting to take notice of what’s going on in the South West; it’s a really exciting time.
For more information on Cytoseek please visit their website.