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Profile MD Biosciences
Core business: Preclinical research
Date incorporated: 2004
Location: Glasgow (parent company headquartered in Zurich with offices in Minnesota and Tel Aviv)
Major customers: Leading pharmaceutical companies
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“We had no intellectual property (IP),” says MD Biosciences co-founder Professor Paul Garside. “But who says that you need IP to spin out a successful biomedical company?”
While most other spin-outs are based on scientific or technological breakthroughs, MD Biosciences (MDB) Inflammation Discovery Services was based on the realisation that a small group of scientists working at the University of Glasgow had the expertise and the resources to provide a valuable service to the pharmaceutical industry – screening new drug candidates to identify which ones are likely to work best.
At first, some people doubted that a spin-out was the right way to go, says Garside, but it soon became clear that setting up a new company, specialising in preclinical research for drugs designed to treat inflammatory diseases, was the best approach to running the new operation – and generating revenues for everyone involved.
“At that time,” says Garside, “there was no mechanism for doing that kind of commercial research within the university environment, but we were convinced it would work as a spin-out.” In those days, it was also very hard to win research grants for more than a few months at a time, which made it hard to market research as a business. More predictable cash flow and longer-term funding were needed – plus regular contracts.
With financial and operational backing from Eddie Moradian, the CEO and founder of Morwell Diagnostics, the new joint-venture company was founded in 2004 and quickly grew to 18 people. And despite the economic recession, which has seen the pharmaceutical industry cut back its spending significantly in recent years, it has proven a major success. MDB IDS has also been supported by the University of Glasgow’s Innovation Network Programme and its First Step Awards, which offer up to £5,000 per project to help create long-term collaborations between SMEs and university researchers. Scottish Enterprise has also backed MDB.
Before the company was formed, Garside and co-founder Professor Ian McInnes had been approached by a number of big pharmaceutical companies over the years to provide specialised preclinical research, but it was not until they went to a biomedical conference in the US in 2004 that the business began to take shape.
“I think we were invited to the conference as agents provocateurs,” Garside recalls. “We were asked to comment on the methods used for screening new drug candidates, and were able to suggest ideas which seemed to be of interest to the industry.”
Moradian, who was also attending the conference, was impressed by the two academics and asked them if they’d ever thought of working commercially. This initial conversation quickly gathered momentum and Moradian promised to fly over to Glasgow the following week to explore the possibility of spinning out a contract research organisation (CRO) from the University of Glasgow. While Moradian provided the majority of finance and also had a ready-made customer base to put on the table, Garside and his team provided the expertise and the technology, enabling the new company “to investigate the immune response in a more detailed manner.”
What makes MDB different, according to Garside, is that it provides a much more detailed picture of a candidate drug’s mode of action in terms of the immune response, going beyond standard tests not only to see how the drug works, but also what it may be capable of doing. From the start, Garside strongly believed that the ability to design bespoke studies for drugs would also be key to its long-term success. Some of the more advanced research models used would not seem out of place in a university environment, because academic researchers are often exploring new frontiers of drug design where the industry may not desire to go, but Garside saw the potential of using these techniques on an industrial scale, rather than just in speculative research.
“Persuading the big pharmaceutical companies to use a new model can be a challenge,” says Garside. “They know they need to do all the conventional studies, in order to compare results with similar competitive products, but the ability to look at the immune response in much more detail also gives them a major advantage.”
Garside explains that when the body is attacked by an infection, two kinds of cells interact: T lymphocytes (or T cells) and B lymphocytes (or B cells). By “talking to each other,” these cells produce antibodies to counter infection. They are also adaptive – they learn from their experience (including their encounter with a vaccine) in order to respond to a future attack.
Instead of just showing that a drug is effective, Garside and his colleagues can demonstrate why it’s effective by showing how the T Cells and B cells respond to the drug by producing the right antibodies. Some cells may be encouraged by the drug to produce more antibodies and thus fight the infection, or the drug may help to multiply the number of cells that produce the antibodies. T cells also have specific receptors for specific infections, and it's hard to identify these different T cells because they all appear to be so similar. The proteins they’re designed to fight are also highly complex. Once researchers understand what happens in detail, however, the pharmaceutical companies can then fine-tune the drug to make it more effective. And according to Garside, the trick is to detect the receptors and help the cells to recognise the nature of the challenge they face from specific infections – the “what, where, when, why and how” of diseases. For example, MDB IDS may study a new anti-inflammatory drug, and its job is to find out how it works and ask if it may also be used to treat other diseases.
MDB IDS researches the effects of drugs in vivo – i.e. looking at samples from living organisms – but is also exploring new “dynamic imaging” methods to extend its capabilities. This enables researchers to detect biomarkers inside the body and is therefore non-invasive and greatly speeds up the research. Generally, the immune response provoked by most infections can be measured from the very early stages to predict how it is likely to progress, so this means researchers can reach their conclusions more quickly, thus speeding up development of more effective drugs.
The focus of Garside’s research has been “to investigate the fundamentals of immune regulation in vivo and apply any findings to infectious and auto-immune disease scenarios.” And, ultimately, this means understanding the basic interactions of the immune response – what happens in the body when we’re threatened by different diseases, and what turns the immune response on and off. A major aspect of his work is using advanced imaging techniques (a multi-photon laser scanning microscope) to see how cells move in living tissue in real time; what Garside describes as the difference between looking at still photographs and looking at a film.
Garside developed his interest in immunology while still an undergraduate at Salford University, where he “happened to do” a project in parasitic infections. This led to a PhD in intestinal parasites, which in turn fuelled Garside's interest in the immune response, and brought him to Glasgow in 1989 to work as a post-doctoral researcher for five years under Professor Allan Mowat. He later won a Wellcome Trust Career Development Fellowship to study at the University of Minneapolis and then returned to Glasgow to run his own research lab and teach, becoming Professor of Immunobiology in 2002. This was followed by four years as Director of the Centre of Biophotonics at the University of Strathclyde, before returning to Glasgow again to continue his research.
During the last decade, Garside and McInnes spent a lot of time working to make MDB IDS a success, meeting clients and advising researchers. Both are still shareholders, but are no longer involved on a day-to-day basis.
Garside is proud of his role in establishing one of Scotland’s most successful spin-outs. He is also happy to be back in the research lab. But would he do it all over again?
“If the opportunity did come along and it was an innovative project, then definitely yes,” he replies.
MD Biosciences Inflammations Discovery Services (MDB IDS) specialises in preclinical research – facilitating drug discovery by using cutting-edge models to predict the potential of new compounds in the progress and treatment of inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Its services include efficacy studies, mode of action platforms, bioanalysis, gene expression analysis, histopathology and imaging, with an emphasis on customised studies and the development of novel models for screening.