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3 April, 2012 - 06:56 By Tony Quested

Drug hunters alert to Cambridge startup

Ash has ripped up the biotech blueprint with a turnkey technology solution that promises to produce new drugs faster and more cheaply than ever before

Global drug hunters have been alerted to a Cambridge UK startup whose technology holds out fresh hope for the development of new blockbuster medicines.

The founders of Ash Biotech – Simon Brocklehurst and David Norton – are European biotech pioneers and from the Cambridge Antibody Technology stable that produced this region’s last blockbuster drug, HUMIRA.

Still in stealth, Ash has ripped up the biotech blueprint with a turnkey technology solution that promises to produce new drugs faster and more cheaply than ever before.

It is doubtful whether the European biotechnology sector, let alone the Cambridge cluster, has ever witnessed such a potent amalgam of hardware and software, biotech and biology R & D, equipment and device manufacture from a single resource.

The starting premise for the new venture was that scientists in pharmaceutical and biotech companies spend most of their time progressing molecules that, according to Ash’s founders “are never going to become new medicines.”

Ash Biotech aims to put a stop to this culture of chronic failure. A profile prepared especially for Business Weekly by the founders, stresses the game-changing nature of the company’s proposition. The one sentence description of the company as a biotech equipment and device maker doesn’t begin to map its capability.

The founders’ strong pedigree, combined with the company’s collaborative approach to cutting edge biology R & D, provides for deep insight into the scientific and business needs for what is a new and exciting area of drug discovery and development. Brocklehurst said: “We’re enabling the field to move on from being one that merely shows promise, to the point where it can address the biggest and most pressing challenges facing the biotech and pharmaceutical industries today.

“Our hi-tech hardware and advanced companion software products, coming from our R & D programs in photonics, imaging, fluidics and computer vision, enable pharmacology and toxicology to be carried out by scientists on a scale, cost and speed that has the potential to be transformative in the search for new medicines.”

The founders say that the high failure rate of drug assets in the later stages of development is probably the biggest issue facing the pharmaceutical today.

“By the time a project fails, huge amounts of time and money have been spent. In fact, scientists in pharmaceutical and biotech companies actually spend most of their time progressing molecules that are never going to become new medicines. It’s terribly inefficient, and increasingly unsustainable.

“Now, it’s incredibly difficult to do a good job of figuring out at an early stage which molecules are destined to be winners. Everyone claims to want to kill projects early – it’s been a long-standing wish in the industry.”

It has never really been put into practice because of an absence of good data to base those decisions on, the company maintains.

The critical step of drug profiling is too often postponed until late in the development process, even being left until the asset is in the clinic, the founders argue. They add: “It’s really not a surprise there is so much failure in late-stage development.

“We are developing the tools to allow drug profiling to be moved up-stream in the development chain, putting low-cost, large-scale pharmacology and toxicology at the heart of early drug discovery and development.

“We can enable scientists to obtain this rich view of all aspects of the therapeutic profile of new molecules, including not only efficacy but also safety pharmacology and toxicity, at speeds that are orders of magnitude faster than is currently the case, and at orders of magnitude lower cost. That’s the promise of our technology.

“An experienced drug hunter can look at the results of the data obtained from our systems, and say ‘that looks like it could be a drug; or that looks nasty – it’s going to be toxic at a dose where there’s a therapeutic effect; or there’s a serious risk of cardiovascular adverse events.’ We think this is an exciting area.”

In terms of the maturity of the field, the Ash founders believe it is reminiscent of the antibody space in the late 1990s, “when we were playing our role in establishing these as the most important new class of drug molecule in a generation.”

What did the antibody space look like then? Brocklehurst said: “Well, it was showing real promise – there were a handful of drugs from the technology in clinical trials. However, there were major downsides. There had been high-profile failures from first-mover companies – it’s really difficult to get new technologies to work robustly.

“That sets the field back, because it leads many people to think, ‘it doesn’t work.’ Antibodies were also very different in nature to the small molecule drugs that had come before, and for many people, ‘different’ automatically translates as ‘worse’.

“These downsides were enough to put many companies off from getting involved, leaving them to play catch-up late in the day when it became clear just how important antibody drugs were going to be.

“What we did for antibodies back then, we’re doing for this new technology area now – getting it working reliably, fast, and inexpensively. Our products are the first really hi-tech hardware and software technologies designed from the ground up for use in this new area and we think they have the potential to really move the field on.”

Ash Biotech is not about to claim that it has a silver bullet, because this is an incredibly complex area of the drug discovery process. But it adds poignantly: “We’ve already seen enough to know that developing blockbuster drugs using this technology is very much on the cards.”

After years in development, Ash Biotech is getting ready for the public launch of its first product. Meanwhile it is very much open for business to biotech and pharmaceutical companies based in the UK.

What about developing a blockbuster itself? “Let’s just say it hasn’t escaped our notice that there could be interesting opportunities for that, too.”

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