Although immunotherapy in cancer is booming, it isn’t by any measure an easy field to navigate. Many oncology ventures willing to explore this new terrain find themselves quickly lost in an array of immune cell types, epitopes, and antibodies, or simply do not have the capacity to take on the immense workload. To compensate for this, Sofie Pattijn and two colleagues founded ImmunXperts as a development partner for companies focused on immunotherapy. But ImmunXperts is definitely not your “classic” CRO.
Every new immunotherapy drug has already gone through an intense preclinical development stage before being evaluated in clinical trials. During this phase, in vitro assays are used to characterize and compare drug candidates. By measuring and observing their effect on immune cells, the more promising and less risk-bearing drug candidates can be selected, which drastically increases their chance of passing in vivo tests and early clinical trials later on. Because of this, immunological in vitro tests can generate valuable information. Sadly, designing, implementing, and performing them can be a most difficult task.
Sofie Pattijn, CTO at ImmunXperts: “When the breakthrough of checkpoint inhibitors proved that the immune system is able to have a profound impact on cancer, oncologists became convinced that this could be the cancer therapy of the future. In response, many companies tried to develop immunological assays in-house, without much success. This caused the notion that these tests didn’t work or were too difficult to perform to grow in the market. We decided to step in and put our expertise in this field to work via ImmunXperts.”
Many companies in the field had communicated the need for a flexible development partner. There’s a clear demand forimmunological knowledge in the oncology space and that’s where our expertise can make a difference.
Exactly the right test
When considering ImmunXperts, “custom” is the word to keep in mind. The company designs in vitro tests specifically tailored to a client’s drug in development. Take, for instance, checkpoint inhibitors: many of these molecules are currently in development, but there isn’t one assay that fits them all. Each of the inhibitors requires tailor-made in vitro assays to generate meaningful data. These can all be tested on a myriad of immune cell types or in a broad range of different cancers. The sheer amount of possible combinations makes it quite clear why custom assays are needed.
Thibault Jonckheere, CEO at ImmunXperts: “Internally we have developed a qualitative and reliable platform of assays, which we then customize and optimize depending of our client’s needs. Take a mixed lymphocyte reaction (MLR) assay, for example. We can offer this test in over 30 forms, with different subpopulations of blood cells, working with healthy or sick patient cells, and so on. Our strength lies in carrying out an assay in a way that answers our customers’ questions. We either develop these tests with our customers and afterwards transfer it to them or we run the assay for them.
Constantly moving forward
While training your customers to do the services you offer them seems like a controversial business plan, that’s exactly what ImmunXperts does. As companies don’t have the time, resources, and expertise to develop these assays and stay up to date with the fast-moving technology available, they turn to ImmunXperts.
“We know that providing and passing on know-how to customers is a unique CRO model, yet we see the enormous added value we can bring to drug developers,” says Pattijn. “We see ourselves as the interim immunology department of our clients, and educating them is an integral part of what we do. In doing so, we develop long-standing relationships with our customers and continue to provide anything from advice to materials, even after a project has finished.”
“I think this mode of operating says a lot about our company culture,” adds Jonckheere. “As a close partner, we wish to share our knowledge with as much people as possible. This is also a learning experience for us while at the same time forcing us to keep moving forward. We’re constantly on the lookout for better or newer tests. In that perspective, we’re not a CRO but more of a mobile development team!”
This article appears in the BioVox White Paper on Immunotherapy, May 2017. Download the complete work here for free.