Solutions in… Human Antibodies
John McCafferty, CEO of IONTAS, explains how his company’s work in mammalian cells could bring biopharmaceuticals to market faster.
Maryam Mahdi | | Interview
As co-founder of Cambridge Antibody Technology, John McCafferty is no stranger to starting a business. The company was once dubbed the “jewel in the crown” of the British biotechnology industry for its work on antibody therapeutics (1). As of 2012, he has transitioned back into industry from academia, and currently serves as CEO of IONTAS, which focuses on developing technology for protein-based drug discovery.
Why return to industry?
Without a shadow of a doubt, Cambridge Antibody Technology played a pivotal role in my career. The company was a spin out, founded by David Chiswell, Director of Nabriva, and Greg Winter, founder of Bicycle Therapeutics, and myself. It commenced operations in early 1990 in Winter’s lab at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the UK and developed antibody phage technology for the first time. Prior to this invention, there had only been one antibody drug derived from immunized mice approved for use. And it was dawning on many within the industry that mouse antibodies were not the way ahead and that “humanization” would be required. Humanization required the swapping of regions of foreign DNA, primarily derived from mice, into a human antibody structure.
Antibody phage display made it possible to create very large populations of fully human antibody genes coupled directly to the antibodies they encode. Through a relatively simple biopanning process (a selection technique), we showed it was possible to select antibody genes to any target from these massive libraries on the basis of the binding properties conferred by the corresponding antibody protein. The isolated antibody gene then effectively provides the “recipe” to produce the drug molecule at scale.
The invention, developed in the UK, has been adopted worldwide by most biotech and pharma companies. And throughout its time in the industry, Cambridge Antibody Technology went from strength to strength, producing blockbuster drugs including Humira. The company was acquired in 2006 by AstraZeneca. In 2002, after 12 years with the company, I returned to academia.
While the experience was positive, I realized that many of the initial commercial “players” had been absorbed into bigger companies and were focussed on internal drug development. I could also see there was still a big demand for human therapeutic antibodies, with an opportunity for myself and the team around me at the University of Cambridge Biochemistry Department to fill.
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