In October, SpyBiotech announced that its partner, the Serum Institute of India (the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer), had dosed the first subjects with a novel virus-like particle (VLP) targeting COVID-19 in Phase I/II trials.
Whereas the Oxford vaccine (co-invented by Vaccitech, read more here) uses a chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector, the star of this story is SpyBiotech’s ‘protein superglue’ technology of unprecedented stability and stickiness.
We spoke to Sumi Biswas, co-founder and CEO of SpyBiotech about her experiences founding an Oxford University spin-out, milestones that the company has hit to date, what COVID-19 means for SpyBiotech and her future aspirations for the company.
What is SpyBiotech’s ‘protein superglue’ technology?
Our proprietary ‘protein superglue’ is a technology which allows researchers to quickly and efficiently generate new vaccine candidates.
There are two parts to our superglue: SpyTag and SpyCatcher. SpyCatcher is linked to the vaccine delivery platforms such as virus-like-particles, which are very efficient at inducing a strong antibody response. SpyTag binds to antigens from a range of different pathogens. SpyTag and SpyCatcher bind together to form an unbreakable covalent bond and display the antigen on the delivery platform.
This technology can be used in combination with lots of different delivery platforms and has been used in hundreds of publications across the world for many different diseases. It is also now in human clinical trials for COVID-19, led by the Serum Institute of India, which is exciting.
Can you tell us about your journey founding SpyBiotech?
Growing up in India, I was aware of the huge burden of infectious diseases against many of which we still didn’t have effective vaccines, and that vaccines were one of the most effective ways to prevent the morbidity and mortality caused by these diseases. My studies into vaccines brought me to the UK in 2015, where I studied for a master’s degree in medical microbiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Since 2016, I’ve been based at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute working on malaria vaccines, initially doing my PhD. I am currently an Associate Professor.
I started collaborating with Prof Mark Howarth, who originally discovered the superglue technology and applied it in seeking to generate malaria vaccines in 2016.
When we started seeing really promising results, we decided to found SpyBiotech with the aim of tackling different diseases through the creation of different vaccine delivery platforms. Mark, Simon Draper, Jing Jin and I – all at the University of Oxford – founded the company in 2017 with seed funding from Oxford Science Enterprises and Google Ventures.
What are some of the major milestones that the company has reached so far?
When we set up SpyBiotech, we decided to generate a vaccine against human cytomegalovirus (HCMV). In addition to the unmet medical need and huge commercial potential, one of the reasons we chose HCMV is that the target antigen is very complex. Using traditional methods, it’s very difficult to generate a virus-like-particle vaccine displaying this antigen. Within three years we’ve gone from no data on this candidate to generating very strong pre-clinical data for this candidate. It’s currently under GMP manufacture and we plan to start Phase I clinical trials next year.
Recently, SpyBiotech has signed an exclusive global licensing agreement with the Serum Institute of India for the development of a novel virus-like-particle (VLP) vaccine targeting COVID-19. The Phase I/II study of this candidate has been initiated by the Serum Institute of India in Australia.
The vaccine candidate uses the SpyCatcher/SpyTag protein “superglue” technology to display the coronavirus spike protein on the surface of Hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) VLPs.
For SpyBiotech, this is an opportunity to provide an accelerated proof point for our platform technology, alongside the other candidates which we are advancing into clinical development.
What are some of the major trends in vaccinology at the moment?
One important trend is the growth of rapid response platform technologies. There is growing realisation that we need to be ready for future epidemics/pandemics – an awareness which COVID-19 exacerbated – and we need to have a suite of platform technologies in order to do this. Different ones might be effective against different diseases.
This is an area which is likely to attract more investment. Already after the Ebola outbreak, work had started looking at outbreak pathogens, but it’s clear that this needs to be scaled-up. Traditionally speaking, vaccines against infectious disease struggled to attract investments compared with, for example, oncology therapeutics. Globally, I hope we are going to see more investment into this area. I would also say people need to think about the cost and distribution of these vaccines as well and the suitability of the vaccines for both the developed and developing world.
What do you think about the UK’s position in the field of vaccinology?
The UK leads in innovation in vaccine development. It also leads in vaccine testing, and the University of Oxford’s role in the development of the AstraZeneca vaccine is testament to this. A number of other vaccine candidates, including the COVID-19 vaccine using SpyBiotech’s technology and the mRNA vaccine from Imperial College are also in human clinical trials. These all use different platforms. Just how advanced these vaccine candidates are highlights the innovation in vaccine development, but also the capacity for rapid clinical testing.
However, to put us into the best position for a future outbreak, the funding for these platforms and work on the manufacturing capacity needs to be accelerated and scaled-up.
What do you see as the future of SpyBiotech?
We want to see multiple different vaccine candidates using SpyTag/SpyCatcher being used to prevent infectious diseases and cancer. Not just for diseases that we know about and for which vaccines are difficult, but also for outbreak pathogens causing smaller outbreaks and future pandemics. I think the world recognises how being ready and having technologies that you can easily use in these instances are important. That’s what makes our technology attractive.
Personally, I’m also excited about expanding the team and growing the company. At SpyBiotech, we are currently a small team of people, but very dedicated and ambitious. I’m looking forward to building it over the next few years to tackle more diseases.