Icosagen: Keep an eye on the ambitious developments

Icosagen Cell Factory has ambitious plans for the future – while, at the moment it is a competence centre developing innovative technologies for the efficient production of biological drugs, in five years, it will be a pharma company also dealing with in-house drug development projects to deliver better and cheaper biopharmaceuticals against infectious diseases.

Icosagen Cell Factory has ambitious plans for the future – while, at the moment it is a competence centre developing innovative technologies for the efficient production of biological drugs, in five years, it will be a pharma company also dealing with in-house drug development projects to deliver better and cheaper biopharmaceuticals against infectious diseases.

Icosagen Cell Factory has already operated for 12 years by producing recombinant antibodies and recombinant proteins on a fee-for-service basis for pharma and diagnostic companies. The company also develops monoclonal antibodies by using direct cloning from B-cells of rabbits, chicken and mice.

“Recombinant proteins produced in Icosagen are mainly used by the biotechnology and pharma companies involved in drug development, and are testing the drug candidates in animal models. These companies are more interested in the result of their experiments than producing of the molecules for their experiments. Therefore it is becoming more common that the manufacturing of drug candidates is outsourced to third companies specialised in the production,” explains the Director of Business Development at Icosagen Cell Factory, Meelis Kadaja, PhD.

There is plenty of research going on in Icosagen. “Although we are focusing on the commercialisation of our existing proprietary technologies and services, the purpose of this is purely to re-invest the profit from the sales into the development of the company and into novel technologies. Last year we launched a new technology to facilitate the development of recombinant antibodies, which allows us to take one step forward in the drug development process, and we are now also able to develop the antibodies in addition to producing them.”

The company has also decided to diversify its activities into the later stages of the drug development process, and to also make the development of mammalian cell lines more cost-effective, which would eventually make the GMP-level drug production faster and cheaper. “Today, Icosagen is only able to produce proteins for pre-clinical studies. Drugs candidates that can be administrated into humans must meet much higher quality standards, and have to be produced by switching to different technology, to stable cell lines” explains Kadaja. The European Commission has recognised the potential in Icosagen, and supported Icosagen’s ambitious endeavour by providing 1.2 million euros from its innovation programme “Horizon 2020”.

Working on an Ebola vaccine

“We have a very experienced team and efficient technologies. We certainly have an ambition to launch in-house drug development projects and we are thinking about it already today. For instance, we belong to an international consortium, who is interested in the development of an Ebola vaccine and drugs. As a scientist, I am interested in whether we are able to develop the drug although at the same time I hope that there will be no need for it. This is one potential success story, we are looking forward to,” says Kadaja.

“Many companies are no longer satisfied with the traditional antibodies but are trying to improve them. This continuously sets new challenges for the production process as well, which also leads to the constant need to improve already existing technologies. Icosagen is a company not so much committed to making money but rather committed to development; the final goal will be to improve the quality of life of people by launching new more affordable drugs,” confirms Dr. Kadaja.

Looking ahead, Kadaja sees that the percentage of biological drugs is increasing in the market: “Company’s activities are part of a continuously changing process. There is an increasing need for services and technologies of Icosagen, which in turn gives the company the opportunity to grow. In five years we might have increased our revenue tenfold.”

The technology markets itself

“In Europe, we advertise ourselves as an Estonian company, but last year in the USA we incorporated a subsidiary Icosagen Technologies Inc. to overcome the geographical barrier. Although the geographical barrier in the technologies’ market is non-existent, customer relations play a vital role in the selling of a service and an Eastern European company must make an extra effort to earn the trust of American customers. Another reason is overcoming the inconveniences of the time lag,” Kadaja brings out. “We differentiate positively from our competitors with our technologies – the QMCF technology patented by Icosagen that is frequently used as a reference method, is well-known. This is by far our best marketing tool, also for selling services,” says Dr. Kadaja.

“Icosagen produces drug candidates to several R&D companies hence we have close cooperation with Estonian universities. The universities are sources of knowledge and resources for us. We often consult with our colleagues from the University of Tartu and Tallinn University of Technology and use the services of the university core facilities, for example, to characterise the biological molecules. We have also had joint technology development projects supported by Enterprise Estonia and the Archimedes Foundation. For example, one of the latest was the HPV (human papillomavirus) Drug project in cooperation with the Institute of Technology of the University of Tartu. We developed drugs to inhibit the replication of the HPV genome and several drug candidates were identified. The results are promising and commercialisation of the project will be an interesting challenge” confirms Kadaja.

Meelis Kadaja joined Icosagen a few years ago, in January 2014. Before that he was involved in research, studying the replication of the human papillomavirus and the maintenance of the skin stem cells over 16 years. Despite the academic success, he eventually chose Icosagen instead of pursuing the scientific career: “I am very pleased with my decision and I also encourage other young scientists to be more adventurous and broad-minded – maybe fulfilment in a fast developing company will be the right choice.”