Entrepreneur

S’pore To Start Human Trials For COVID-19 Vaccine - This Biotech Startup's Helping To Develop It

“My uncle who has Stage 4 lung cancer can finally go back to driving his taxi because of immunotherapy,” said Ng Choon Peng, co-founder and CEO of Singapore biotech company ImmunoScape.

Triggering the body’s immune system to kill cancer tumour cells is emerging as a promising therapeutic approach to combating cancer, he explained.

Therefore, when his co-founder and COO, Dr Alessandra Nardin, introduced him to immunologist Evan Newell and postdoctoral research fellow Michael Fehlings from the Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN) under A*STAR and suggested the possibility of collaboration, he immediately agreed to it.

Newell currently serves as the co-founder and Advisor while Fehlings is the Director of Scientific Affairs.

“We are providing the immune landscape, thus the name ImmunoScape,” Ng explained to Vulcan Post over the phone.

How He Came To Head A Biotech Company

Sharing more about his background, 49-year-old Ng said that he holds an MBA from University of Michigan’s Ross Business School and an Economics degree from the London School of Economics.

“I worked in [pharmaceutical giant] GSK’s Philadelphia office and later in the Bay Area with Johnson and Johnson in the marketing function, before returning to Singapore to “carry the bag” in Janssen-Cilag,” he added.

ng choon peng immunoscape
Ng Choon Peng on the left / Image Credit: Biotech Connection

He was then headhunted to be the CEO of Asia for LEO Pharma, a pharma company headquartered in Denmark. 

He grew the operations of LEO Pharma in 15 markets across Asia, including China, Japan and Korea.

“In a lunch with the Chairman of A*STAR, Lim Chuan Poh (his ex-boss in the Singapore Armed Forces) persuaded me to join A*STAR to contribute to translating technology to the clinic and to the market,” said Ng.

He was convinced and joined the A*STAR Biomedical Research Council as their Senior Director, where “he was passionate about shaping the biotech ecosystem and tried to identify gaps and address issues”. 

He went on to secure the funding to set up today’s Experimental Drug Discovery Centre (EDDC) in A*STAR. 

After its conceptualisation in 2017, the ImmunoScape team bootstrapped themselves for the first 18 months.

We slept in low-cost hotels and homes each time we travelled [for business]. We chased the project payments daily and ended up taking a loan on personal guarantee when our combined contribution almost ran out while actively pitching for funds to replenish our account.

There is a Chinese saying “万事起头难”, which means, “everything is difficult at the beginning”. It was definitely tough in the beginning when we were starting out. We had to assemble resources from all the co-founders to help fund the seed round when we started the company.

– Ng Choon Peng, co-founder and CEO of ImmunoScape

Studying Our Immune Systems’ Responses To Novel Drugs

Today, the biotech startup specialises in high-dimensional immune profiling.

In other words, they study what T cell populations are actually doing and how they change as they respond to specific pathogens — bacterium, virus, or other microorganism that can cause disease.

t cell populations
Image Credit: ImmunoScape

To put it simply, a T cell is a type of white blood cell that acts like soldiers who search and destroy the targeted invaders.

ImmunoScape works with global biopharma companies and research groups to help discover novel biomarkers, uncover the impact of candidate drugs on the immune cells, and discover novel drug targets in cancer, infectious diseases and autoimmune diseases. 

The company licensed the intellectual property exclusively from A*STAR and further developed the applications to help speed up the drug development process for partner companies. 

t cell population
Image Credit: ImmunoScape

“ImmunoScape differentiates by using unique reagents that are produced by the team, by tapping on the downstream pipelines for data analytics developed by our bioinformaticians that are loaded on cloud so as to uncover deep immunological insights,” said Ng.

They raised S$3 million from their first funding led by University of Tokyo and subsequently raised US$11 million (S$15 million) in their second round of funding led by Anzu Partners and Edge Capital.

How They Joined The Race To Develop A Vaccine For Covid-19

Prior to Covid-19, 90 per cent of their work was on cancer, which is the second-leading cause of death in the world.

“One in three people will have cancer at some point of time in their lifetime. Most people will know someone in their extended family or amongst their expanded social circles someone who has cancer,” said Ng.  

ng choon peng immunoscape team
(From left) ImmunoScape’s chief executive Ng Choon Peng, its chief operating officer Alessandra Nardin, and its associate director and head of technology development Yannick Simoni / Image Credit: ImmunoScape

When it became apparent that Covid-19 is going to be a global pandemic, they took “swift actions” to apply their technology to understanding our body’s immune response to the virus.

“Even though we have been working on other infectious diseases prior — for example, on tuberculosis with Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and on Hepatitis B, we needed to find collaborators quickly to have access to Covid-19 samples for further studies, said Ng.

They have since been studying how patients’ immune systems react to the coronavirus and leveraging those insights to help them understand vaccine-induced immune responses in work done with vaccine developers, including US-based Arturus Therapeutics.

Most of ImmunoScape’s 20-strong staff here have taken on Covid-19 work since April, with seven of its scientists and research officers working on the vaccine candidate, LUNAR-COV19, in its lab in Biopolis.

Embarking On Phases 1 And 2 Of Clinical Trials In Singapore

Last week, Arcturus Therapeutics and the Duke-NUS Medical School have been approved to proceed with the clinical trials for vaccine candidate LUNAR-COV19 by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA).

Arcturus and Duke-NUS partnered to develop the vaccine using Arcturus’ STARR™ technology and a unique platform developed at Duke-NUS, allowing rapid screening of vaccines for potential effectiveness and safety.

Duke-NUS Medical School will house the clinical operations of the trials and they could begin as early as this week.

In Phase 1, the healthy volunteer study will evaluate several dose levels of LUNAR-COV19 in up to 108 adults, including older adults. A follow-up will be conducted to evaluate safety, tolerability and the extent and duration of the humoral and cellular immune response.

ImmunoScape will screen for relevant epitopes for the virus and monitor immune profile changes during the clinical trials of the vaccines. 

The first wave of the vaccine clinical trials aims at measuring the generation of neutralising antibodies that can block virus infection.

The hypothesis is that if we can raise the titre of the human antibodies to a certain level, the individual may be protected against Covid-19 for a certain duration.

– Ng Choon Peng, co-founder and CEO of ImmunoScape

The clinical trials are designed to test this hypothesis and to find out the right level of antibodies that is adequate for this protection and the duration of protection amongst other things.

“While ImmunoScape’s technology is useful in providing the immune monitoring of these trials, we are focused on a deep understanding of the T cell’s response to Covid-19, which might inform the design of a vaccine that can be more targeted,” added Ng.

immunoSCAPE biotech startup singapore
Image Credit: ImmunoScape

Subsequently, Phase 2 studies involve the vaccine being tested on more people, possibly a few hundred, to see if it generates an immune response.

Singapore would own the rights to the vaccine here, while Arcturus Therapeutics would be free to market it around the world.

On challenges, Ng cited working with the global teams’ different time zones, as well as coordinating the shipping of samples and reagents halfway across the world during Covid-19.

However, the team has been “extremely motivated” to continue the important work.

12 To 18 Months Away From Vaccine Approval

Currently, a US-based biotechnology company Moderna has entered Phase 3 of its human trials.

Moderna, which has never brought a vaccine to market, has received nearly US$1 billion from the US government to do so.

Phase 3 will be in the big numbers, said Ng. It will see researchers test the vaccine on an even larger group of people to see if it can generate a response that is strong enough to protect people from the disease.

However, to achieve a 100 per cent efficacy will be difficult.

Professor Ooi Eng Eong, deputy director of Duke-NUS Medical School’s emerging infectious diseases programme, had said that “70 per cent efficacy would be very good because even recovery from the infection will not give a patient 100 per cent protection”.

A vaccine that is 70 per cent effective means three out of 10 who receive the vaccine will still be susceptible to the virus.

He had explained that with herd immunity and continued observance of social distancing, Singapore does not need to have 100 per cent immunity to Covid-19 in its population, adding that the country just needs enough people to be immune to stop the virus from replicating.

Based on the projections of the clinical trials ongoing, we are 12 to 18 months away for a vaccine approval. 

– Ng Choon Peng, co-founder and CEO of ImmunoScape

However, there could be a possibility that some of the 160 vaccine development projects ongoing in the world today might be proceeding at a faster pace.  

Just yesterday morning (28 July), the United States announced that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine could be ready for use by end of year.

How Covid-19 Has Changed The Biotech Ecosystem

“I like to think that Covid-19 has brought forth the best in the biotech ecosystem. The willingness to collaborate and bring together expertise to solve this global problem has never been greater,” said Ng.

He said that he has observed that partners hammer out collaboration contracts within the day, compared to the lengthy discussions in the past about how to split future gains from joint projects.

They also hope to help more vaccine programmes speed up their clinical trials using their technology platform. 

“Our Vaccine Task Force headed by Brian Abel, our team mate based out of San Francisco, is reaching out to biopharma companies globally.”

“I know my colleagues are not contented with the solutions that they are providing and they continue to push the frontiers of science through R&D to bring more accurate, sensitive tests to the market, and more solutions to solve the many problems brought forth by Covid-19.”

Featured Image Credit: Reuters / ImmunoScape

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