Laboratories that can develop therapies for cancers and other critical illnesses are in strong demand, commanding high prices from the major drug companies.
One of those that is leading the way is Fusion Antibodies, based in Poleglass, in west Belfast.
Fusion is a spin-out from Queen's University, set-up eight years ago by Professor Jim Johnston, the chair of immunology at Queen's.
Having worked in American universities, Johnston understood how to set-up a spin-out as a dynamic enterprise.
The company initially got backing from Qubis — the commercialisation arm of Queen's —and it has since obtained substantial equity investment from two large Belfast private equity funds Clarendon, Crescent Capital and the Halo group and from individual venture capitalists.
Fusion aims to discover therapeutic drugs that target, for example, cancerous cells and kill them. Where chemotherapy has to attack cells indiscriminately to kill off the cancerous ones, targeted drugs that can recognise the cancer through the proteins carried by the cells can |be much more effective, with far less serious |side-effects.
As well as cancers, these new breed of therapeutic drugs are also being developed to treat cirrhosis, lupus and even arthritis.
The range of illnesses that can be tackled, the level of demand from consumers and clinicians, and the fact that some of the highest earning mainstream drugs manufactured by the major pharma companies are about to come out of patent protection, together mean that the development of new drugs is potentially very lucrative.
Not surprisingly, Fusion has expanded rapidly. “At the end of 2001 there were four or five of us,” recalls Paul Kerr, director of business development at Fusion.
“Now there are 28 on the payroll, but up to 32 when including students.”
At present, there are exchange students from France and Germany on placement with |the company.
The role of Fusion is to develop the idea of a therapy from the gene, to the discovery, to the validation and then to the patent.
At this point, the cost of moving to the development and trialling of the actual drug is too expensive for anything but a very large pharma company. So Fusion expects to either sell-on the patent at this point, or else for the entire company to be bought by a pharmaceutical multinational — such as Roche or AstraZenica — to act as a laboratory for the company.
Click on www.smallbusinesscan.com to visit the network where small businesses and entrepreneurs are coming together