Cork’s biotech stars

13 Jul 2011

Cork has played a significant role in the area of life sciences, hosting some of the biggest biopharmaceutical companies along with indigenous ones. Laura O’Brien takes a look at two promising Irish start-ups and how the fusion of biotechnology and ICT has helped them grow.

Ireland has had enormous success in the life sciences sector. The country is the world’s largest net exporter of pharmaceuticals, with its life sciences industry exporting US$63bn per annum. Its indigenous biopharmaceutical sector is growing at an average 18pc per year.

Ireland has secured more than US$5bn in investments from leading life sciences companies and nine of the 10 top pharmaceutical companies in the world have operations here.

Cork, in particular, has a strong role to play with this success. It has become synonymous with the sector, with companies such as Pfizer and Janssen Biologics operating in the county.

It also has seen many start-ups in this area. One such company includes Radisens Diagnostics, a medical diagnostics firm developing an instrument to test for multiple diseases instantly with just a single drop of blood. A doctor can perform tests at point of care using this tool within minutes, allowing for faster diagnoses.

The start-up will soon receive a €1.1m investment, led by Kernel Capital, to help continue the development of this tool.

Radisens Diagnostics started up in the Rubicon Centre, an incubation centre located on the campus of Cork Institute of Technology (CIT).

“We initially came into the Rubicon as part of the Genesis Innovation Programme back in 2008,” says Jerry O’Brien, chief executive of Radisens Diagnostics.

“For us, it was a bit of a no-brainer, with their track record of taking companies, incubating them – growing them up, if you will – and even exiting them.

“So we started with the Genesis Programme, but there was also an added attraction in that the applied research centres here in CIT across the medical side, the photonics areas and the electronics areas were perfect for us as they’re the technologies we develop. For us, it’s much more than the Rubicon Centre itself, but the ecosystem that’s built around it.”

Driving innovation

For the first year, Radisens Diagnostics was straight out in the market and talking to various diagnostics companies, hospitals and medical care organisations in the US and Europe about the instrument.

“The whole drive was really the coming together of a number of different fields – in our case consumer electronics and medical diagnostics – to really drive the innovation into point of care,” says O’Brien. 

The fusion of biotechnology and the ICT industry is having a huge influence on life sciences. By sharing knowledge between the two fields, the research has greatly benefited.

“In the past, it took us a few months to have these different fields in the R&D side talking to each other. The words in the diagnostics area might be different from the electronics area. That took a bit of effort, but that knowledge is driving us forward,” says O’Brien.

Indeed, Radisen’s technology almost sounds akin to science fiction – providing almost instantaneous diagnoses with a drop of blood. O’Brien believes these devices may become commonplace in future. 

“I was recently talking to the medical director of Massachusetts General Hospital and the view in the US is that there will be a small desktop phone-sized kit that can do all the blood tests you can imagine in the next couple of years.” 

Dr Roy Sleator, a lecturer at CIT’s Department of Biological Sciences, has also seen the benefits of combining ICT with biotechnology through the field of bioinformatics. 

“Traditionally, biological sciences would be looking at growing bacteria and developing mechanisms to deal with bacterial infection. Over the last few years, leveraging off the sequencing of the human genome, we’ve become very interested in the information encoded on the DNA of this bacteria,” he says. 

“If you can identify the gene that allows the bacteria to grow in a particular environment – on the skin, for example – and if you can interfere with how that information is processed by the bacteria, then you have a really nice way of dealing with the infection.

“The problem, as a biologist, is that dealing with large amounts of information isn’t something that we’re particularly comfortable with and so that’s where the ICT people come in.”

Sleator notes that CIT has encouraged convergent technologies and interdepartmental discussions. Through this, Sleator began talking to computer scientist Dr Paul Walsh.

“Over coffee, I was talking to Paul about some of the sequencing projects I’m involved with and Paul was talking about his database analysis software. The two came together – if he could crunch all of the data that I was producing in a rapid and more appropriate manner then we’d have something really good,” Sleator explains. 

“And that‘s really where it’s evolved – we’ve gone from growing bacteria to mining their information, so we’re dealing with gigabytes of information.”

Convergence of fields

They formed a bioinformatics group in CIT and developed software called BioMapper, which allows researchers to make genomic discoveries in a secure computing environment. 

The group spun out into a campus-based Enterprise Ireland-funded company called nSilico. It recently returned from a visit to the University of Chicago, which is trialling the software.

The ability to store such vast amounts of information has proven useful in pushing forward this biological research.

“The human genome is a really good example because it consists of 3bn base pairs, so 3bn letters of information.

“Back in 2001 when it was published, it was amazing. We thought that that was the top level of information that we’ll ever need as biologists but the sequencing capabilities were there and people were interested in generating more sequences, so we’ve moved away from the genome – or single genome – to what we call the ‘metagenome,’” he says. 

“The metagenome involves taking a particular biopsy and sequencing everything in that environmental niche. For example – and a lot of people don’t know this – the human body has a ratio of bacterial cells to human cells of 10 to one. So we’re 10 times more bacteria than we are human. 

“The human genome was 10pc of the story – the other 90pc was contained in the metagenome. Uploading it to the cloud perhaps is where the metagenome is going.” 

The convergence of both fields has not only provided more efficient tools and research methodologies, but will also offer new careers. Sleator says the potential for jobs in bioinformatics is “excellent, in a word”. 

“If you look at the way industry and technology are going, not only nationally but internationally, there’s a convergence of technologies. 

“It’s no longer good enough and certainly in the future it won’t be good enough to say that you are a lecturer in biological sciences because there will be no such thing as biological sciences without an information aspect to it – biostatistics or biomathematics.  

“It’s a convergent technology so we’re trying to create people with interdisciplinary approaches. These types of individuals are extremely sought after in the industry.  

“From a biopharmaceutical point of view, graduates obviously need a degree in biology but they also need to be able to switch on a computer and interact with automated systems. We see the future of our graduates with both IT and biology backgrounds as very good,” says Sleator.

Photo: Dr Roy Sleator, lecturer at CIT’s Department of Biological Sciences

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