Targeting the invisible

BQ editor Mike Hughes attempts to understand aptamers, but can clearly see why Aptamer Group is a pioneer in the sector.

Mel Ellyard needs more space. Each room we go into on a tour of Aptamer Group’s labs at the aptly named Innovation Way on York Science Park, is full of kit.

There is dedicated, serious and headline grabbing work going on here led by CEO Dr Arron Tolley, chief technical officer Dr David Bunka and chief operating officer Mel, Arron’s wife.

To be almost offensively simplistic about it, aptamers are synthetic compounds, produced in a laboratory from strands of DNA or RNA. They fold into very complex shapes which enables them to attach to any number of targets; like cancer cells, viruses and tissues. This very effective molecular glue is said to have a high affinity - one factor you would look for in an apatmer. You also want a high level of specificity, which means the aptamer can easily recognise one target but not another, even if they are very similar, and only attach to the correct target.

Making trillions of slightly different aptamers at a time means that when the target is introduced, there is a better chance of a number of aptamers sticking, which can then be identified. That process is repeated over and over to pin down the perfect aptamers for that target. That is what medical companies around the world will pay for – a highly effective aptamer which is looking for a specific target to attach to and could then carry something with it that will affect that target when it finds it. Arron and David are particularly good at doing that and discussed the commercial possibilities over late night meetings at Leeds University back in 2008.

“I had always been interested in how far aptamers could go when you took them out of a university setting,” said David. “My head was very academic focused, but Arron had more industry experience from before his time on the PhD, so he looked at it and said ‘hang on a minute – there’s a lot of commercial potential here which is never going to be exploited in a university environment’.

“Settling down into a position in academia didn’t really appeal, so Arron said ‘should we try to make a go of this and see if there is a commercial appetite?’ and while I was still at the university he did quite a lot of research to see if there was a company selling this as a service.”

Mel says their investigation of the landscape around aptamers suggested there was scope for a new business. “We looked at the IP and FTO - freedom to operate - and found that a lot of core patents for two main operations in the US were starting to come to an end around 2010-2011. So there was a lot of academic interest but few commercial operations.

“So we were ahead of the game, with one of the world’s leading aptamer experts and a fierce entrepreneur who worked very closely with patent experts.”

There seems to be no limit to aptamers. From pregnancy testing to water purification to battling bioterrorism, aptamers can be made that find what is invisible. Cancer is a target in many ways, particularly for aptamers which are carrying a chemotherapeutic ‘cargo’. The aptamers ignore all the healthy cells that aren’t cancerous, attach to the ones that are and deliver the treatment.

Your body doesn’t mind all this work going on because a perfectly made aptamer is indistinguishable from a piece of DNA, so the body thinks a normal process is going on and treats the aptamer as a part of itself.

So far David has created aptamers for more than 200 separate targets. Tomorrow Arron would be working on cell lines for companies like AstraZeneca, but today he was next door designing benches to hold the robotics system that is constantly being developed and is a key part of the company’s expansion.

Its enormous capacity to replicate selection processes for that whittling down of aptamers enables the team to accept more and more contracts. But over the next few months more people will be brought in and roles will be more clearly defined as the company tackles around 40 separate projects. Major companies are knocking on the door at Innovation Way because a very efficient SEO strategy has got the Aptamer Group’s name out in the sector. And they see the same potential that Arran saw seven years ago.

It’s been a fast-paced few years since Arran came home ‘waving his hands in the air and talking about aptamers’, Mel recalls. He then spent an unpaid year doing his research (while Mel was working for the FT and then running her own business) and then three years in a lab in Leeds proving what could be done against oesophageal cancer and securing things like IP, which they use to control ownership of each aptamer.

“Bits of equipment started making their way into the house. We had lovely big home with a massive basement, so it all started appearing down there.

“When robots started landing on the kitchen table, we knew we had to do something. The business was moving, we had started to talk about investment, so we really needed to move this to a commercial lab.”

Now it is dealing with customers in America, China and across Europe in a market that has no geography or innovation limitations. A strong board of directors is being developed to bring in more experience of sectors they are working in, including diagnostic, therapeutic and biomarkers, which can indicate diseases in organisms. One of the directors already goes out to Asia every couple of months to help increase Aptamer Group’s profile and grow the business in areas hit by the likes of Ebola and Aids. “It’s addictive. The projects are fascinating and it is so important to us that it is privately owned and we still have control,” says Mel.

“We have just finalised a third round of funding, but we will have to have a Series A at some stage. The key is how fast we need to move to stay ahead of the market – I know these guys could spend millions on new equipment at the drop of a hat.

“Early next year I think we will be looking at something. Probably not venture capital, but we are going to have to go for a substantial slug of money. We’re already talking to contacts of our existing investors to see how we go about that.

“It’s scary when we think that although we formed in 2008, we only started trading in 2012.

While  pausing and reflecting now is not an option, it might be tempting to say let’s just get in a load of staff and a load more space in. “But, again, that would be really dangerous because with these two core people in the business, it is a gradual process to download from these guys and get their processes into the business and operational.”

The fast pace has also meant a clean, sharp structure to the company, with four distinct stratas under the main heading. Aptasol, or Aptamer Solutions, is the core business, developing and making aptamers; Aptamer Diagnostics is a contract research organisation focusing on aptamers for diagnostics and detection platforms; Aptamer Therapeutics specialises in that area and Aptasort looks after biomarker discovery projects.

There is so much technology in these rooms and yet Aptamer Group is so human. It is organic, growing all the time, being fed and looked after by devoted parents. It’s whole reason for existence is to look after people and their problems by rewriting the textbooks almost daily and at its core it has the sharpest minds in the business, who perhaps never quite know where their technology will take them by the end of each day.

Almost tucked away in the corner of a Yorkshire science park, they are making jaws drop around the world.