Updated: Aug 28, 2020
On Friday the 21st of February, a significant number of people collected in the Foyer of the Biomedical Sciences Building at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Normally just for students and researchers, the building suddenly contained a wide array of individuals, from consultants at a revered research hospital in Dublin to Professors of Physics, to esteemed delegates from the Government Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation.
They were all there because they had a part to play in the DTIF-GTCASP research project. From administrating the funding that allowed the project to happen, to utilising the products that the platform will be producing. The DTIF-GTCASP project brought together a vast range of groups all under one roof with a shared purpose, to celebrate the launch of such an innovative undertaking.
Speakers and staff working on the DTIF-GTCASP Project.
From left to right:
Prof Igor Shvets, Prof Frank Barry, Dr Larry Bacon, Dr Orlaigh Quinn, Dmitry Kashanin, Vivienne Williams, John Concannon, Stephen Creaner.
To do the project justice, a range of selected speakers were invited to provide context on some of the more important aspects of the collaborative undertaking. This started with the funding before moving towards the challenges in cell manufacturing that necessitated the proposed platform. Then talks covered the technological innovations of the GTCASP itself. After this, more context was provided as to what a CDMO like Lonza looks for in projects like this and the current state of CAR-T cell therapy, one of the main applications for the GTCASP.
The first of our speakers were Mr. John Concannon, the Vice President of NUI, Galway. He gave an exceptionally warm welcome to all of the guests and speakers on behalf of the university.
John Concannon, Vice President of NUI Galway, welcoming guests and introducing the event.
After this, Dr. Orlaigh Quin, Secretary-General of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation came to the stage. She provided some excellent context on how the DTIF-GTCASP Project fits into Ireland’s greater political vision. As part of an initiative known as Project Ireland 2040, the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund (DTIF) was created to greatly bolster Ireland’s scientific industry. She explained that research and industry development was a top priority for their department and that it would continue to be important to them in the future.
Dr Orlaigh Quinn, Secretary General of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation giving the opening remarks.
Next on the list of speakers was Mr. Stephen Creaner, Executive Director - Food, Industrial, Life Sciences and Innovation of Enterprise Ireland. He gave a more in-depth talk on the DTIF and the significant impact it has already had. With 43 collaborative projects already awarded so far, the DTIF is driving collaboration between Ireland’s world-class research base and its enterprises. This collaboration builds on Irish research and leverages it for commercial impact in key technology areas. It prepares the groups involved to engage with Europe and global partnerships on the development of disruptive technologies.
Mr. Creaner finished by highlighting the vast commercial possibilities the GTCASP project. With the potential to become standard in the field of gene therapy, the GTCASP could greatly strengthen Ireland’s reputation in the cell manufacturing industry. The GTCASP project is an example of Irish SME’s at their best, demonstrating aspects of originality and creativity for which Ireland is renowned.
Mr Stephen Creaner, Executive Director - Food, Industrial, Life Sciences and Innovation of Enterprise Ireland speaking on the DTIF.
Next to speak was the chair of the event himself, Prof Frank Barry, Professor of cell therapy at REMEDI (The Regenerative Medicine Institute). Frank’s group had developed an interest in cellular therapies after looking for regenerative treatments for osteoarthritis. Currently, all treatments for this disease target the symptoms rather than actually modify the disease. Frank’s group developed a stem cell treatment that could possibly alter the state of the disease. Their trials for stem cell therapy on osteoarthritis were looking successful but they quickly discovered that the process for producing the therapies was exceptionally complicated and would prove to be a significant hindrance to future work.
Having the official centre for cell manufacturing in Ireland, Frank’s groups are now working on the AUTOSTEM project. This is an initiative with the goal of creating a large scale, automated factory for stem cell products. Frank has joined the GTCASP Project as he believes that the GTCASP will be imperative in realising this automated stem cell factory. His group will be validating the GTCASP for use in producing stem cell therapies.
Prof Frank Barry, Professor of Cellular Therapy at NUI Galway, speaking on the challenges in cell manufacturing.
After Frank, Vivienne Williams and Dmitry Kashanin, CEO and CTO of Cellix took to the stage to speak on the project itself. Vivienne started off with an overview of the project structure, explaining how accomplished members of Cellix, NUIG, TCD Physics and TCD Medicine have all come together to produce the GTCASP. She then went on to discuss CAR T cell therapy, one of the main applications of the GTCASP once it is finished.
CAR T cell therapy involves removing the white blood cells from a patient with a serious haematological cancer such as acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. The white blood cells are then genetically edited to give them a receptor that allows them to target cancer cells before being injected back into the patient. The first person to ever receive CAR T cell treatment was Emily Whitehead in 2012. She was believed to be out of options at this time but after a successful CAR T clinical trial, made a complete recovery and is still alive today.
Vivienne explained that it is evident though, that the process for producing CAR-T cells is long, expensive and inefficient. Full of manual, labour intensive steps that leave the cells open to infection. Producing an automatic, in-line system for this process would dramatically improve access to cell and gene therapies and this is what the GTCASP aims to accomplish.
Vivienne Williams, CEO of Cellix, explaining the applications of the GTCASP.
Dmitry then took over to define the specific technical elements that make the project so innovative. These elements can be collected into 3 main areas: cell analysis, cell sorting and gene transfection. Dmitry described Cellix’s solutions in these areas and showed results for those that are already validated. Dmitry went on to show that Cellix has plans to develop novel, even more, innovative solutions in these areas and has already acquired a patent portfolio to take them further.
Dmitry Kashanin, CTO of Cellix, describing how the GTCASP works.
After this, Dr Birgit Nelsen-Salz, Future Technologies Pharma & Biotech, Global Head of Grant Management at Lonza came to the front to speak about a CDMO’s perspective on the technology needs for cell therapy. Being a Contract Development and Manufacturing Organisation (CDMO), Lonza is in talks with contracting and utilising the GTCASP after its development. In Birgit’s talk, she gave a much larger market overview of cell and gene technologies. These technologies specifically are very exciting as they are potentially curative therapies but there are many challenges ahead for them including scale-up, product quality and cost of development. Birgit showed that Lonza has already developed plans to address the issues and also emphasised that process development is the foundation for successful therapy commercialisation which is exactly what the GTCASP seeks to address.
Dr Birgit Nelsen-Salz, Future Technologies Pharma & Biotech, Global Head of Grant Management at Lonza, giving a CDMO's perspective.
Finally, our last speaker, Dr Larry Bacon began his talk. Dr Bacon is a consultant haematologist at St James’s hospital in Dublin and he is also the clinical lead for Ireland’s only designated CAR T cell therapy centre. Dr Bacon came up to give a more in-depth view of CAR T Cell therapy, what developments have been made in this field, and what the future holds for CAR T in Ireland.
He gave an overview of the science behind CAR T, showing the different innovations in biological design over the decades that have finally led to its success and before showing results of the latest clinical trials. Dr Bacon emphasised a more realistic view of things when going over the trials, pointing out that the therapy still had its flaws and that not every patient makes it. He also pointed out, however, that all of these trials were on patients who had already received at least 2 failed treatment attempts of chemotherapy or radiotherapy leaving them extremely sick before the trials even began. If CAR T cell therapy becomes the first line of treatment rather than the last line, it could see even bigger improvements in remission rates.
Dr. Bacon finished his talk by describing the exciting future for these types of therapies. At the moment, the diseases that CAR T can treat are quite rare but it is possible that the technology could be harnessed to treat other types of cancer including solid tumours. If scientific innovation can get the technology to this stage then the market for these therapies and the platforms like the GTCASP that produce them would be astronomical.
Dr Larry Bacon, consultant haematologist at St James's Hospital, showing the current state of CAR T cell therapy and outlining its future in Ireland.
The DTIF-GTCASP launch event proved to be a complete success and we would like to extend another big thank you to the many people that have come together to help make it happen. We are looking forward to the future of the project, its exciting developments and the greater effects it may have on the burgeoning cell and gene therapy industry.
The GTCASP staff would like to thank everyone involved and supporting the project.