Mastering immunity

8:00am Thursday 19th May 2011

he study of immunology is not only relevant to illness. Every foreign agent that enters the body has the potential to provoke a response from the immune system.

Usually, this keeps us disease-free, as ‘self’ is tolerated and ‘non-self’ attacked and eliminated. When ‘self’ is mistakenly attacked, we see the development of auto-immune disease, and when ‘non-self’ gets the upper hand we fall prey to acute or chronic infections.

Researchers developing vaccines seek to enhance the immune response to pathogens to prime the body’s own arsenal against future infections.

On the flip side, every drug and even every food, cosmetic or other household additive can potentially generate unwanted immune responses, and nobody wants to be allergic to their shampoo or breakfast cereal.

Everyone from medical researchers to household brands needs to know exactly which substances can tickle the immune system, and which substances can sneak under the radar.

Portions of substances the immune system can recognise are called epitopes, and identifying potential epitopes and monitoring the immune response to them is where Oxford-based company ProImmune has become a world leader.

Little more than a decade ago, Dr Linda Tan and Dr Nikolai Schwabe set up ProImmune in a single room in the Oxford BioBusiness Centre at Littlemore.

The founders are proud they never had to rely on outside investment. Using the mentoring support and shared facilities of the BioBusiness Centre, they grew the company to 12 staff in two years, funded entirely by the sales of their first products.

This independence from external investors continues to allow ProImmune to pursue its own business direction.

Building on Dr Tan’s PhD work at Oxford's Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, among ProImmune’s early products were Pro5 MHC Pentamers.

Pentamers can be used to detect epitope-specific immune cells so they can be analysed in human blood samples.

By the time ProImmune graduated from the BioBusiness Centre in 2005 to move to new premises at the Oxford Science Park, they had some 250 Pentamers available.

Pentamers continue to be part of ProImmune’s core business and have gone from strength to strength. Today, Pentamers are the most commonly cited commercial product in their class in the scientific literature.

The company has pro-actively maintained links with its academic roots and contributed to diverse collaborative projects such as Allostem (a European transplant research initiative), AutoCure (autoimmune disease research) and VITAL (exploring non-Hodgkins lymphoma treatments).

In particular, one collaboration in 2008 stands out. Researchers in Sweden had a patient who had a cord blood transplant to treat acute myeloid leukaemia but developed an Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)-associated lymphoma as a result.

They used Pentamers to purify donor anti-EBV immune cells, which were transferred to the patient with life-saving effect.

The company’s motto, ‘Mastering Immunity,’ reflects the importance to medical science of understanding how the immune system functions.

Infectious diseases, for example, HIV, hepatitis and influenza; cancer, allergies, debilitating auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and neurodegenerative diseases including multiple sclerosis could, in principle, all be prevented and cured by a correctly functioning immune system.

Understanding immunity and how to manage it is key to preventing and curing these diseases and presents an enormous opportunity to address global, unmet medical needs.

To that end, ProImmune offers clients the opportunity to save time by outsourcing aspects of their research programmes or clinical trials.

Over the years the company has developed a unique expertise in tracking immune responses and custom epitope-discovery services, which are vital to groups involved in clinical studies on the immune system.

Most recently, ProImmune has launched a range of services to predict potential adverse reactions to drugs and vaccines before they are first trialled on people.

Dr Schwabe said: “We try to mimic and predict the function of the immune system in laboratory tests on donated human samples, such as blood and serum, in a way that can also reduce and in some cases eliminate the need for animal testing.

“Our goal is that eventually every drug and vaccine that comes to market anywhere in the world will have been evaluated for potential and actual immune responses with groundbreaking new methods.”

Today, ProImmune employs 50 people and sells its products and services directly to most countries of the world, with exports accounting for more than 85 per cent of its business.

Dr Tan and Dr Schwabe have created a highly-skilled team of scientists with a strong focus on research and development, ensuring the company continues to offer innovative products and services that address the needs of medical researchers.

As a result, the company now counts most of the world's leading pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, as well as several thousand academic groups, among its regular customers.

The co-founders, who originally hail from Singapore and Germany, are delighted with the business and its Oxfordshire roots.

Dr Tan said: “We are very proud and appreciative of the excellent business support in this county that has helped us to grow the company to where it is today.”

n Contact: ProImmune, 0870 042 7279.

Web: www.proimmune.com n This page is co-ordinated by Oxford Innovation www.oxin.co.uk

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